Bees & Beekeeping: Present & Past

Summer Cotton Honey Production

- January 1, 2020 - Wyatt A. Mangum - (excerpt)

cotton field and honey bees

When the spring nectar flow gets zapped by a late frost, flooded out by relentless rains, or crunched dry under a cloudless sky, I see fall sugar bills robbing my bank account to zero. Then visions of a huge snow-white cotton field soothe my agony (see Figure 1).

That grand sea of white, so striking on a bright sunny day, forms from millions of split-open cotton bolls, each dropping out a wad of pristine white lint. Each of those bolls was once a flower (see Figure 2). One morning, sometime back in the summer, each of those flowers bloomed, showing off its large white petals, before closing, wilting and falling to the ground. To me, a vast field of cotton bolls bursting with white lint is a flower record of the plants blooming over the summer (see Figure 3).

Unseen in the vast flower record is a slowly unfolding nectar flow. Even if a dry spell comes, if not too severe, cotton continues to produce some nectar. The soil under the cotton plants may not be all the same. Even within a field, a place with perhaps more clay, less sand, retains moisture longer. The leaves of those plants may not droop like the surrounding ones (but that is hard to observe way out in the field).

I have watched bees work a nectar-producing patch within a dry cotton field. It is easy for the casual observer to see only a dry cotton field, the plants smeared into each other, all the same, like the green of a golf course. The bees, far more sensitive, scout through the field and find where particular plants still yield nectar.

As best as I can tell, cotton on the east coast region (along Interstate 95) halts in southern Virginia, which is about a two-hour drive south of my home apiaries. I have heard that being at the northern extent of the cotton region gives a reduction in the pest insects on cotton, and hence fewer pesticide sprays. I would advise if you can move bees to cotton, find out from local beekeepers, those who have current experience, how safe it is for bees. Years ago, insecticide spraying of cotton caused horrendous bee kills. Generally conditions have changed drastically for the better, but still check your local situation.

Moreover, here in Virginia and where I had 200 top-bar hives on cotton in North Carolina (mostly in Nash and Edgecombe Counties in the 1990s), my pesticide damage was nil. (The 200 top-bar hives had been pollinating spring cucumbers. I left them on the farms for the summer to make cotton honey, which eliminated my second largest operating expense, sugar for fall feeding. My largest expense was gasoline. Cotton really helped my bottom line.)

Now with more technology, my summer cotton begins in the spring. I watch the climate forecast models for the Mid-Atlantic region (www.nws.noaa.gov: choose Forecast then Climate Prediction, or search National Weather Service, Climate Prediction Service).

While I watch the climate models all year as part of informed apiculture, now it is for cotton nectar production. A favorable prediction would be an above average rainfall and below average temperature for the summer months (June, July, August). A summer prediction of below average rainfall and above average temperature does not bode well for favorable cotton nectar production. Still, particular local conditions, fortunate with frequent thunderstorms, combined with cotton’s heat tolerance, and the colonies can eke out marginal total weight gains, which I consider an average total weight gain of 30 lbs.

If the summer forecast model looks favorable, I make up more new colonies in the spring for growing into full colonies on summer cotton, trying to avoid the expense of feeding the new colonies in the fall. If the summer forecast appears bleak, instead of considering increasing hive numbers, I have to maintain my hive numbers by sending full-size light-weight colonies to cotton. If they gain 30 lbs. during the summer instead of heading for starvation losing hive weight, I consider it a small victory, given the harsh conditions.

As the spring nectar flow gradually comes to an end in my area around mid-June, my colonies begin to contract their brood nests and adult population sizes begin to decrease. In general the colonies begin to prepare for the long summer of marginal nectar and pollen sources. By the time cotton blooms, around the middle of July, the bees would have been mostly in survival mode for about a month.

To capitalize on cotton, right from the beginning I want the colonies in their spring-like physiological condition (sans the swarming). In the intervening dearth time, I lightly feed the colonies syrup (1:1) and pollen (substitute) patties. The amount of the syrup depends on the size of the colony, but not enough for comb construction (wax production), and definitely not enough for swarm queen cell production. I do not feed the syrup continuously, but enough to support noticeable egg production. If eggs are difficult to see, look for patches of little larvae floating on plenty of glistening white worker bee jelly. I use various internal hive feeders, not entrance feeders that could start the bees robbing during marginal foraging conditions. Besides, I want to see inside the hives and know the prosperity of the colony conditions.

For pollen patties, a strong colony receives one-third of a pound. I estimate smaller amounts for nucs depending on their size and growth rate. (Here I am more concerned about small hive beetles infesting slowly consumed pollen substitute.)

I move both my top-bar hives and my eight-frame hives to cotton. At the end of the spring nectar flow of 2019, many of my top-bar hives were rock-pile heavy. Others were less heavy but not light enough to justify a trip to cotton. Consequently, I moved only three top-bar hives to cotton.

From my frame hives, eight started that spring as packages that needed to gain more weight. Another eight hives were too light, or I just wanted to make honey for other frame-hive colonies at home. On July 13, 2019, I scouted a cotton location whose honey production history ….