Notes from the Beeyard: Getting off on the dandelions
October 16, 2013
The bloom is off the rose, so they say, or in the world of bees and beekeepers, the bloom is off the dandelion.
As you look out over the hay fields they've taken on a gray cast from all the dandelion seed heads.
We have a long association with the dandelion.
It was being noted for its medicinal properties as early as the 10th century and was utilized by both the Anglo Saxons of England and the Normans of France.
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There were no dandelions in North America when the Mayflower landed in 1620, but it's likely that some of those early Puritans brought dandelion seed along to cultivate in the New World, and most certainly there would have been dandelion seeds in the early shipments of seed for Old World crops.
The first bees were brought across the Atlantic in 1622, and just 50 years later the bees and the dandelions were advancing rapidly ahead of settlement and were well established in New England.
Native Americans saw the arrival of the honey bee as a sign of white settlement and called them "the white man's flies", perhaps for some of the same reasons they may have seen the dandelion as the white man's flower.
The earliest beekeepers in Colorado had a hard time keeping their bees going.
Those first colonies starved out in the spring because spring flowers just came too late.
The earliest account of this is the fate of the very first bees in Colorado, those of Isaac McBroom, Colorado's first beekeeper on record.
Isaac came west in 1860, and at the request of his brother John, who had preceded him, on a return trip east brought the first colony of bees to Colorado in 1862.
His bees prospered the first summer, and in October a short article ran in the Rocky Mountain News that said McBroom had brought a comb of honey to the newspaper office to show that bees could be kept in Colorado.
Unfortunately McBroom's bees died that first winter.
As more and more agriculture was established, the prospects for the bees improved.
Fruit trees and berries bloomed in the spring and provided some forage, but there was still a significant gap in the spring nectar and pollen flows until the dandelion established itself.
Pioneer families no doubt brought dandelion seed west and cultivated it in their gardens for the same reasons their ancestors had for centuries, and seed shipments would have had dandelion seed in them just as they had in those first shipments to the New England over 200 years before.
Like the honey bee, the natural advance of the dandelions would have been blocked by the Great Plains, and while I haven't been able to find a date yet for the first appearance of dandelions in Colorado, they most certainly came early and would have rapidly established themselves along the moist stream bottoms and in the newly irrigated cropland.
As beekeepers, we still depend on the success of the dandelion bloom in the spring 150 years after settlement. The dandelions bring an end to winter and lay the foundation for a productive season.
For the sake of discussion let's say that a colony of bees makes it through the winter with a population of 10,000. In late February the early trees begin to flower (willows, maples, Chinese elms) and this protein source sets off egg laying by the queens.
By the end of March, a colony will have gone through 2 or 3 brood cycles and the population is up to perhaps 15,000, some minor spring flowers have begun to bloom along with some of the early fruits and berries, adding to the incoming pollen and to a lesser degree nectar, but it's the dandelions that are key.
Here along the northern Front Range the dandelion bloom peaks in the third week of April, although this can vary as much as 10 days either way, depending on the kind of spring weather pattern we have.
I've always thought of April 23rd as the day that will usually fall at the ascendancy of the dandelion bloom and Miles schedules our return with the packages to fall close to that date. That way the packages will get off to the best possible start.
A colony of bees will boom on a good dandelion flow, filling two stories with new honey and brood. The nights are warmer and with a larger population the bees are able to keep a brood nest warm that is at the limits of the queen's ability to lay.
Often in a good dandelion flow I will have to add a couple of honey supers above a queen excluder to give the colony extra room and relieve the crowding pressure so they don't swarm.
By early May a good colony may be up to 40,000 and may have filled the two supers with dandelion honey.
Once the major dandelion bloom has passed there is a relative dearth until about mid-June and the bees will fall back on the surplus they put away on the dandelions. All that brood hatches and the population peaks.
The objective in most beeyards is to have the maximum number of fielders just before the onset of the major honey flow. In most years that's the second cutting (bloom) of the alfalfa, which starts sometime after the 4th of July, the exact date depending on when the first cutting was taken.
If we are fortunate to have a sweet clover year then that flow starts around the 20th of June.
A lot can happen between now and the summer honey flow. The bees may chug along nicely, usually eating into the honey stored on the dandelions, and I can do a lot of balancing out to bring all of the colonies up to speed.
In some years these can be lean times, dry and with little forage, so the bees have to be watched closely and in some cases may even need supplemental feeding.
I remember one year when the Miller Moths showed up in such huge numbers that they nearly starved the bees out. Being night flyers the moths were sucking the flowers dry at night and when the bees started flying in the morning there was nothing left for them.
The packages have done fairly well on the dandelions. Normally we would expect packages, on average, to fill out a second story, make their winter stores by fall, but not produce any surplus honey.
If I can goose them along a little and give them a little extra help and attention, maybe some of them will be able to fill a super or two.
I was beginning to see a little water stress here and there and figured our green spring was coming to an end, but a cool spell has moved in on us, it's raining this morning and we've already had a third of an inch.
I got the last of the transplants in yesterday evening and sowed the third planting of buckwheat.