If you’re thinking of having a honeybee hive next summer, there’s no need to wait. You can get started right now, even in the dead of winter, by sprouting seeds to plant when warm weather returns.
Honeybees live as a superorganism, with each one working for the good of the whole, and depending upon all the others in its colony. If they can’t collect enough nectar and pollen to make enough honey to survive on through winter, the colony may perish—in fact, each year, 30 to 60 percent of bee colonies starve to death or abandon their hives for other reasons—so the health of honeybees depends on having a wealth of nectar- and pollen-rich flowers nearby.
But even if having a hive isn’t your thing, sprouting and planting a bee-friendly garden will help bees by increasing the local floral inventory. In exchange, the bees will pollinate your flowers, increasing your harvest—and in the meantime, these tiny sprouts will chase your wintertime doldrums away.
Honeybee Garden Prep
Plan Your Garden Size and Location
The bigger the garden, the better for the honeybees—a meadow would be ideal. Plan on turning part of your lawn or vegetable garden into a flowerbed, but even a window box or patio container will help. Honeybees fly up to two miles to collect nectar and pollen, so the more pollinator plants there are in the neighborhood, the better. Having an idea of how large your garden will be will help determine the types of seeds you sprout.
Choose your Seeds
Go organic Starting seeds is preferable to buying commercial plants since many greenhouses spray products toxic to pollinators to protect their stock from pests.
Select nonhybrid Many hybrids have been manipulated to produce larger, brighter blooms, but no longer produce nectar and pollen. Buy heirloom varieties or join a seed-saving club to ensure your flowers are rich in sugary nectar and pollen.
Favor open-face flowers (such as Japanese windflowers and cosmos) and flowers with smaller, clustered blossoms (like Anise hyssop or catnip) to accommodate the honeybee’s shorter proboscis (straw-like “tongue”) and allow for easier feeding.
Plant seasonally From spring through fall, honeybees feed on flowers, so choose a succession of blooms. Poppies, catnip, Jacob’s Ladder, and Salvia bloom early; zinnias are late bloomers.
Plant in drifts Honeybees tend to flock to flowers that grow in masses, so choose plants that will provide large masses of color, like lavender, Salvia, hyssop, or Jacob’s Ladder—all of which come in white or purple tones.
Include native plants Since native flowers are already adapted to the local soil conditions and climate, once they’re established in your garden, they won’t need much maintenance. Native perennials include Echinacea (or coneflowers), asters, various types of milkweed, goldenrod, and Joe Pye weed.
Mix it up Perennials help establish drifts of color, which the bees prefer, while annuals let you change your mind and “redecorate” each year. Hardy perennials include clematis, poppies, and flowering herbs like oregano, sage, mint, catnip, and garlic chives. Annuals like sunflowers also draw birds. Bachelor buttons and borage are reseeding annuals; cosmos’ delicate, waving stalks can last until fall. Kale, cilantro, and basil also attract bees if they’re allowed to bolt.
Check timing Seedlings should be ready to plant outside when the weather becomes favorable, so read the seed packet regarding timing and start germination accordingly.
Get set up Fill the sections of a plastic flat or small individual pots with a lightweight, organic seed-starting soil. Warmth and water trigger the germination process. If seedlings don’t get enough light, they will be leggy and weak. Choose a south-facing window; if that isn’t available, invest in grow lights, heat mats, and a timer; run for 15 hours a day. Until the seeds have sprouted, keep the seed bed moist, never letting it dry out. Water the sprouts regularly with a spray bottle that won’t wash away the soil. Seedlings remain fragile until they’re established. Finding the balance between keeping them moist or drowning can be tricky; in the early stages daily checking is required.
Move up and out As the seedlings grow, transfer them into bigger pots. The seedlings will still be fragile come spring, so be careful during the “hardening-off” period, checking the weather as you let the plants rest outside on a deck or porch for a few days before transplanting them into the earth, tucking their roots in carefully.
HoneybeeLives, an organic apiary, beekeeping education center, and apiary services firm in New Paltz, is offering two-day organic beekeeping classes in New Paltz on January 19-20, January 26-27, and February 23-24; and in Brooklyn at the Commons on February 2-3. The cost is $200; pre-registration is required. For more information, visit at honeybeelives.org or call (845) 255-6113.
Here are some honeybee facts to get you on your way:
- Colony Collapse Disorder occurs when most of a colony’s worker bees disappear, leaving behind the queen, food, and a few nurse bees to care for the queen and any immature bees. According to research, CCD may be caused by pesticide poisoning, stress, habitat changes, mites, emerging diseases, or inadequate food supply.
- A hive or colony consists of a queen who lays all of the eggs and 20,000 to 60,000 honeybees—a mix of female workers and male drones.
- In the Hudson Valley, a hive produces on average 25 to 30 pounds of honey each year.
- A pound of honey requires 2 million flowers being tapped. Each worker honeybee makes 1/12 a teaspoon of honey in her lifetime.
- Honeybees fly fast—15 mph—by beating their wings 200 times per second, which creates their “buzz.”
- A queen lives up to five years, producing 2,500 eggs per day in summer. Honeybees live up to seven weeks. Worker bees born in the fall live in the hive through winter, but drones get expelled before the cold sets in.
- Honeybees communicate about food sources by “dancing.”
- The US has an estimated 211,600 beekeepers.
- Honey is the only food that contains all substances necessary to sustain life. It is antioxidant, hydroscopic, and antibacterial and can cure allergies, and soothe cuts, heal wounds, and combat infection.