Of Bugs, Blooms & Vittles: Winter survivors bring writer joy

By Chandra L. Mattingly

Whew! Despite a cold last weekend in March, the 2014-2015 winter finally is over.

As most beekeepers, I found myself fretting through February, anxious to know if my honeybees had survived. What relief that first warm weekend to find all four of the backyard hives abuzz with activity, and later that day to see some active bees at the two hives I moved to my cousin's last fall.

As soon as I got the chance on a 60-degree day, I checked the home hives and found all still had honey stores. Each also had brood, so I know the queens survived, even though I spotted only one as I inspected the hives. I did find small circles of dead workers in three combs in one hive's upper box, where apparently they were caught when temperatures dropped sharply, and starved, unable to move down in the hive to join the cluster.

A friend found her hive's queen dead in a similar but larger bunch of dead bees in her hive, which still had honey stores, just not where the bees were located. In moderate temperatures, the bees can move about inside the hive from one area of honey to another, even on days when it's too cold to fly. But when it's really cold, they cannot do so and will starve even though there is honey a few inches away.

One of my two hives upriver had almost no stores when checked. I knew this one went into winter with inadequate supplies and had supplemented whenever possible. With a young queen and plenty of bees, it should be fine now as long as I keep food available until the dandelion bloom. Without the extra food, it likely would have starved this month.

Those first few warm days, the honeybees were swarming over the snow crocus in our yard, flowers which had begun blooming before February's snowfalls. Certainly early-blooming trees such as maples and willows provide pollen and eventually nectar, but with as many as three honeybees working a single crocus flower, I suspect the trees hadn't started producing yet.

Help bees, grow plants

Honeybees gather nectar and pollen from snow crocus, one of the earliest flowers to bloom. - Bob Mattingly photo

Why not add snow crocus, snow drops and winter aconites to your fall bulb list this year? They may not be major pollen and nectar sources, but that early in the spring, every bit helps – and you will get to enjoy both the flowers and their visitors.

If you want to support honeybees and native pollinators, you also can leave the dandelions in your lawn. These bright yellow flowers are a major source of nectar and pollen while pollinators are building up their numbers, and what harm do they do? They're beautiful to see, and, if you don't mind a little bitterness, nutritionally excellent, roots and all.

Meanwhile, if you haven't started your garden vegetables and annual flowers, now is not too late. Just keep the more cold-sensitive plants somewhere warm and brightly lighted; our frost-free date is mid-May. While you can plant onions, greens and brassica in April, you should wait to set out tomatoes, peppers and eggplants and to plant beans, corn and melons.

Unless, like my spouse, you have a homemade hot house just for tomatoes! It's been warming up as the days lengthen, and now has two Big Boy and two Early Girl plants in the ground. Hopefully we'll have tomatoes in early June and, with heaters added in the fall, through December, as we did in 2014. They're expensive winter tomatoes, given the electric bill, but what flavor! And what price can you put on bragging rights?

By the way, I should have a few beehives for sale come May. And I will have some native wildflowers good for pollinators at Chan's Plant Sale May 7, 8, 9 & 16 on Ind. 56 in Rising Sun – along with lots of other flowers, herbs and misc. Call if you have questions: 812-438-3182.

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