As an observer of nature, I’m always intrigued by the variation in plant performance. It seems that each year some plants thrive while others malinger. The same is true of bees and other pollinators.
My husband calls it the “year of” syndrome. For us, this was the year of the pear. Right now, I don’t care if I never see another. We’ve eaten pear pies, cobblers, pear sauce and jam, pears sliced, and poached, and baked, and smashed. My husband even tired of his endless pear/pare/pair jokes, although long after I did.
A pair of pear trees
We have two pear trees and usually one produces and one doesn’t, but this year they both erupted with fruit. And the windfall pears that littered the yard attracted entire families of deer—bucks, does, and fawns—to the point that my side yard looks like a cow pasture with thick muddy prints that fill with rain and suck at my boots. Kiss, kiss, kiss as I walk across the lawn.
This year also proved to be the year of the mason bee which, I realize, may be related to the year of the pear. My mason bee population exploded in early spring. I kept providing more and more nesting straws, and each batch was filled anew. This system works well, considering how uninspiring pear blossoms are to honey bees.
Here on my own little patch, it was also the year of the mulberry, the yellow bean, the hardy kiwi, and the dahlia. In fact, it is November 3 and the dahlias are still in bloom.
Mulberries! Kiwis! But where’s the honey?
But for every plant that has a brilliant season, there are many that don’t. Other than dahlias, the rest of my flowers were insipid. Tomatoes were scrawny, and squashes were lackluster. But the worst part for a beekeeper was an almost total lack of surplus honey. Most of my colonies put away enough honey for themselves, although some of the smaller ones needed help early on. But this winter I will be eating last year’s honey crop.
I’m not sure why this happens, but since bees are dependent on plants, and plants have good years and bad, it makes sense that nectar supplies go up and down. Because I don’t sell honey, I can just shrug and move on, but I would be upset if I were dependent on the income.
Plants and their pollinators
Although I’ve studied the relationship between plants and pollinators for years, I still find it perplexing. Take the tomatoes, for example. Bumble bees of several species were all over them and little green marbles appeared all summer long. But it ended there at the little green marble stage.
Conversely, my lemon balm bushes bloomed like crazy. They were covered with flowers, smelling citrusy and sweet on the summer breeze. In a normal year they are covered with bees of all sorts: honey bees, bumbles, wool carders, summer Osmia, and Ceratina. But this year, the bees didn’t come. The native bees ignored them and so did the honey bees. But why?
Sure, in school I studied the technical parts of farming. I’ve studied soil chemistry, soil physics, soil structure, and soil fertility. I’ve studied plant physiology, plant pathology, plant genetics, and plant production methods. Still, there are things we can’t explain, things we can’t pin down, things that cause the “year of.”
What to plant for bees?
Beekeepers often want to know the best plants to provide for their bees. But I find that what is dynamite one year fizzles the next, so it’s hard to recommend anything that works consistently. And what attracts bees is complicated by what is available. A plant that is super attractive to bees in your area may not be welcoming in another area, depending on the choices available.
Honey bees do the same thing, nearly always opting for the sweetest nectar. So whether the bees like your planting depends on what else is available at the moment. Perhaps that is why the bees ignored my lemon balm this year. But it doesn’t explain why the hoards of bumbles didn’t produce tomatoes. That probably has more to do with average daily temperatures, amount of sunlight, soil fertility, and available moisture.
What is your “year of”?
My point is that nature is complex with many competing interests. Beekeepers cannot blame themselves when honey crops fluctuate, nor can they blame themselves for “planting the wrong thing.” Sometimes we just have to accept the outcome without knowing the why of it.
Do any of you have experience with the “year of”? Have you had extremely good or bad honey crops for no apparent reason? Did a bee-attractive plant suddenly fail to attract? I would love to hear your stories.
Honey Bee Suite