The Honeybee and the Maple Tree have an interesting relationship. In the very early spring when the perfect combination of freezing nights and warm days allow, the maple tree runs sap. This process is what allowed the ancient Americans to learn to harvest maple sap to create Maple Syrup and Maple Sugar.
All of our North American maples produce a sweet sap in the spring. The Sugar Maple-Acer saccharum is the most famous. Sugar Maple has the highest sugar content and is the most efficient source for sap to make Maple Syrup. Red maples and Silver Maples are the other two large maple species that are most familiar to us and likely to produce sap for the bees.
Sap harvest by humans in done by drilling a hole through the bark of the tree and inserting a spout called a spile to direct the sap into a bucket. These buckets are them emptied into a large cauldron and the water is boiled off to concentrate the sugars. Depending on the season and the quality of the sap, the resulting syrup can range from honey colored to nearly black. The flavor varies a little according to color with the darker syrup being stronger.
In nature, how do honeybees get to the maple sap? This is where a curious American woodpecker comes in. The Yellow Bellied Sapsucker has developed a unique way of finding its food. It drills lines of holes in the bark of trees. These holes act as hiding places for small insects which the Sapsucker can get when he returns. In the spring when the sap runs the Sapsucker gets a high sugar diet of maple sap and insects that are attracted to the sugary sap.
What makes the maple tree so important to the bees is the time of year when this occurs. Honeybees begin to be active on the same warm late winter days as the maples begin to flow. This activity generally occurs before the earliest flower, in fact, the sap flow often occurs when there is still snow on the ground. We don’t think of Honeybees and snow but, if the sun is warm the bees will fly.
Maple Trees also bloom and those flowers are attractive to bees. Silver Maples have the earliest blooms. In Tennessee they can bloom as early as late February. Red Maples are next and Sugar Maples are the last to bloom. Honeybees find the maple flowers to be a good source of nectar and pollen. The beginning of pollen and nectar flowing into the hive combined with lengthening days is a signal to the Queen Bee to begin laying eggs in earnest to build the hive for spring.
While we may not think of Maple trees as an important bee tree, the honeybee does. Honeybees are resourceful and take advantage of all of the food sources available to them, Maple Trees included. We hope to add maples to our Trees for Bees selection this year.