Of Bugs, Blooms & Vittles: ‘Yellow rain’ is a good thing

by Chandra Mattingly

Around Dusseldorf, Germany, pussy willows and forsythia bushes are starting to bloom – so says my daughter, anyway.

Not here! Just a month into winter, this year's coldest in decades continues its icy grip. But – and this is important to beekeepers – not, so far, without breaks of 40-plus to 50-degree days. These warm spells allow honeybees to fly out of the hive and ensure hive sanitation: the bees get a chance to defecate outside (they won't in the hive unless ill) and carry out those co-workers who have died.

Some folks refer to it as “yellow rain” when the bee poop shows up on car windshields and laundry hung out to dry. But it's great news to know the honeybees are out there, considering all the threats they and other pollinators face these days.

Above-freezing days also allow the bees to move around inside the beehive, shifting from comb emptied of honey stores to other comb still containing honey. Clumped together, they stay warm enough to survive by vibrating their wing muscles to produce heat – but they need fuel (honey) to do so.

In my four-hive apiary in Rising Sun, the warm days also have engendered some beekeeper anxiety in yours truly. After the cold and snow the second week of December (which wasn't even winter yet!) temperatures popped up to the 50s Dec. 19 and I observed bees flying from all four hives. Temperatures went up and down the next week or so – up to 50 Dec. 22 and 28, down to 13 overnight Dec. 23. I didn't notice any hive activity, but wasn't watching closely either, what with holidays and work.

But Jan. 1, the temperature reached the upper 40s and I observed bees from my strongest hive flying in and out like gangbusters! You'd have thought it was a summer day during a strong honey flow from the activity at the hive entrance.

Unfortunately, not one of the other hives showed any activity. Just a little concerned – each hive responds differently and some get more sun than others – I cleaned all the dead bees from the entrance area and landing board on the hive stands. If more dead bees appeared in those areas, I could be pretty sure the hives were active and carrying out their dead.

My concern mounted Jan. 10, when again, I saw only the one hive flying (large numbers again!) on a day reaching 50 degrees. There were a few dead bees outside the other hives, but no activity. I had to leave for the day, but before doing so, took a twig and cleaned off the dead bees, as well as pulled numerous dead bees from inside the entrance of one hive. It sure looked like I'd lost that one!

Saturday, Jan. 11, jumped to 50 degrees again, after heavy rain and thunderstorms in the night. Come mid-afternoon, I found honeybees flying from all three of the other hives – but not the strongest one, which apparently was done for the day. So no worries, for now – all hives remain heavy when slightly tipped, indicating they still have plenty of stores.

As do all beekeepers, I just hope the hives have enough bees and supplies to make it till spring. Should we get a good warm day, as we probably will by February, I'll be out there taking a look inside! Meanwhile, I've been perusing seed catalogs, including native-plant nurseries, and have ordered a number of seeds specifically for bee fodder for my plant sale this May 8, 9 and 10, even viper's bugloss, which is stickery. But it supplies nectar even after rain!

Seeds for button bush, a super nectar plant which grows in and beside waterways, is outside freezing and thawing, as are butterfly weed seeds, one of the milkweeds. These plants not only provide lots of nectar for bees and butterflies (ask Ohio County's Kevin Fancher!) but also are host plants for monarch caterpillars. Though the official count won't be released till March, the monarch population appears to be at an all-time low, so please, do what you can to help.

I may have linden tree seedlings again as well, though buyers will have some eight to 10 years to wait for blooms. But they, too, are excellent nectar producers and the scent of the tree in bloom is almost intoxicating.

Another great scent is lemon grass, and I've wintered over some plants to sell this year. I'm also going to try making my own lemon grass essential oil which a lot of beekeepers use to lure honeybee swarms into swarm traps in April and May.

Spring will come, swarms and all. It always does. Meanwhile, to get on a list for specific plants, call me at 812-438-3182 and leave a message.

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