The Beekeeper’s Companion Since 1861
icon of list

The Curious Beekeeper

It’s All About the Flowers

- September 1, 2021 - Rusty Burlew - (excerpt)

bee on flower

It wasn’t long ago that nearly all beekeepers came into the practice from some agrarian pursuit. These people were gardeners, farmers, orchardists, or dairymen who recognized the benefit of keeping honey bees. Later, others got into it because beekeeping was part of a treasured childhood. How often do you hear, “My father kept bees” or “My grandfather kept bees.” In many rural towns, hives were as common as barns and silos — just a normal part of the landscape.

Besides their love of bees, these folks had something else in common — a working knowledge of plant life. They understood the annual cycles of growth, bloom, seed set, and die-back, and they recognized factors that influenced plant health and productivity. They even predicted good years and bad, fretting over rainfall, drought, and windstorms, and they knew how to read phenological signs.

Many of us grew up with folk phenology handed down by the same people who instilled our love of bees. “Plant potatoes when the dandelions bloom” is an adage I still use. You can “prune your roses when the crocus bloom.” And, of course, you can predict a good harvest if your corn is “knee high by the Fourth of July.”

Our forebears read weather signs, too. “Red in the morning, sailors take warning,” was a reliable predictor of foul weather, as opposed to “Red at night, sailor’s delight,” which meant tomorrow would be gorgeous. Try it. It works because moisture levels and dust concentrations in the atmosphere affect the colors we see, and because our weather system moves from west to east, when and where we see the red makes a difference.

Because folk knowledge was common knowledge, rural beekeepers grew up knowing the basics of plant science. Perhaps they didn’t call it botany or plant physiology, but they had an instinctive feel for how natural systems worked.

Where have all the basics gone?

Today, I hear confusion about plants in the questions people ask. For instance, a new Pacific Northwest beekeeper said, “I learned the big honey crop is blackberries. We have lots, so I added my supers just as the berries began to ripen, but I got nothing. What happened?”

And another, “I don’t understand how the bees make honey from pollen. Do they use the syrup to make it liquid?”

I can empathize with their frustration. Many of these new beekeepers simply do not understand the intersection between plants and their pollinators. Trying to learn beekeeping without a grounding in plant science is daunting because the two disciplines cannot be separated. It’s like trying to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich without the jelly — it just doesn’t work.

Two sides of the same coin

Despite what the books don’t say, the craft of beekeeping has two fundamental dependencies: honey bees and flowers. You simply cannot keep bees without flowers, yet we’ve left plants out of the basic instruction manuals altogether or mention them only as an afterthought.

Back in the day when beekeepers came from agrarian backgrounds, you could probably get away with this. A beekeeping primer didn’t need to detail how flowers work because those farmers and dairymen had a feel for the whole botanical reproduction thing. But with many of our new beekeepers emerging from a Facebook-dominated culture, you simply must explain the details. Every last one.

Ignoring flowers is not an option

To better understand what we currently teach newbies about the connection between bees and flowers, I began leafing through my stash of beginner books. The books tell you what to buy, where to put your hives, and how to install your bees. They explain the basic differences between workers, drones, and queens, and (ever so briefly) mention seasonal fluctuations in population. Some explain how to light a smoker, catch a swarm, and treat varroa, while others offer tips on honey harvest and fall management. Jumping the gun, some detail the processes of marketing honey and making soap.

But nowhere do these books explain the complex codependency between bees and flowers. They don’t mention the parts of a flower, such as stamens, anthers, and nectaries. They don’t explain that bees need both nectar and pollen, or that flowers can be males with no nectar or females with no pollen. One of the best-selling beginner books of all time has less than a half-page devoted to flowering plants.

The birds and the bees

I worked as a volunteer in the Washington State prison system for several years. I taught plant propagation, soil fertility, and greenhouse management to the guests before the superintendent transferred me “outside the fence.” Memorable moments arose from both sides of the razor wire, but I will never forget one afternoon in the greenhouse when I was teaching a dozen well-tattooed tough guys in their 20s, 30s, and 40s about plant sex. I brought some daffodils to pull apart while I described the function of the stamens, anthers, ovaries, and the role insects play in fertilization and seed formation.

Those guys flatly and defiantly refused to believe a word of it. First came flushed faces, uneasy shuffling, and silent gazes at the concrete floor and the orderly rows of plastic pots. Finally, the bravest among them said, “Aw, cut it out. We ain’t stupid. Plants don’t got like sperm and stuff.”

This produced guffaws, giggles, and knowing glances. They all instantly agreed I was trying to pull a fast one. “Fantastic story!” declared one. “Now tell us the truth.” Then they all roared with raucous laughter, creating enough commotion to bring guards with guns storming into the greenhouse.

This took a heap of creativity to overcome. Some of the men eventually came around and accepted the idea of plant sex, however passive it might be. Others, not so much. Within a few weeks, the superintendent asked me to help design a beekeeping program, and after that, he assigned the greenhouse to someone else. Was that a demotion? I never found out, but I was happy to be outside with the bees.

Science takes a back seat

The prison population may be atypical, but it’s not far from the norm. Here in the states, basic science education is at the bottom of our priority list, leaving large swaths of the populace clueless about how the natural world works. For our purposes, that means we must teach new beekeepers the basic biology of how bees and flowering plants interact.

We mislead newbies with our word choices. When we speak of the blackberry flow, I’m sure many beginners think the nectar comes from the berries themselves. We know what we’re talking about but they don’t, even though they think they do. It’s a semantics nightmare.

Similarly, many beekeepers attribute blue honey to blueberries or elderberries, but blueberry honey is amber, not blue, and elderberries don’t secrete nectar at all. Oh sure, we’ve all seen honey bees sipping on a ripe berry, but that’s not the normal course of things. Since the details are often confusing, we must take the time to explain.

The parts of a flower

Beekeepers need to know that nectar comes from nectaries and pollen comes from anthers. In addition, they need to know that a flower may ….