Summer honey flows

Tom Theobald
Niwot, Colo.

The honey flow that started about a week ago is continuing at a little slower pace as the last of the first cuttings are made, but the bees are still bringing in nectar and some of what was brought in earlier has been converted to honey and the bees are starting to cap it, that is put a beeswax cap or lid on each cell of finished honey.

For many years I kept a colony on a platform scale here at home and during the active season I weighed the bees each evening to see what the weight gain had been.

The general rule of thumb is that it takes about 50,000 flight miles for a colony to produce a pound of honey, after visits to about 2 million blossoms. Of course this probably varies significantly depending on how close those flowers are to the hive, how concentrated the blooms are and how much nectar each flower yields, but those figures are the averages we go by.

A single bee will produce less than a teaspoon of honey. This is a numbers game, for both the bees and the beekeepers, and anything that disrupts those numbers affects the success of the colony.

Over the years the scale hive showed that there was a background flow of about two pounds a day in the summer, the bees would gain this much each day from a variety of flowers distributed over a wide area. That would change suddenly and dramatically when a major honey flow started, around here the most dependable summer honey flow coming from the second cutting (bloom) of the alfalfa. Less frequently, another, even stronger flow might come from yellow sweet clover if we were favored with a clover year.

When the alfalfa kicked in the daily weight gain would take a sudden jump, from two pounds a day to eight pounds and if it was an exceptionally good flow even 10 pounds a day or more. The old literature describes honey flows in the eastern U.S. of 30 or 40 pounds in a single day, but the best day I ever recorded here was 14 pounds.

We may have seen 40-pound days here, but they came before my time. My friend Harold Scherbenski has told me of conversations he had with the Crawford family, early beekeepers in the Broomfield area, where they described taking off comb honey almost continuously, starting on the east end of their territory out where Interstate 25 is today and working west, and by the time they got to the west end near the foothills it was time to turn right around and start pulling honey on the east end again.

Those were the early years when the countryside would have been awash in yellow with sweet clover as far as you could see and those might have been 40-pound days. Now we get a little sweet clover here and there, some years a wider bloom, but nothing like the old days, and alfalfa has been the main summer honey flow during my 38 years of beekeeping.

It’s hard to tell just what it is the bees may be working on any given day, and of course the mix changes with time as the flowering periods of different plants come and go. One increasingly important source here in Boulder County is Birdsfoot Trefoil, a legume seen more frequently in the Midwest, but increasing here. It is a good plant for mixed pastures and even hay fields, being a legume it adds nitrogen to the soil and unlike alfalfa which will die and thin out over time, Trefoil will colonize a field and increase.

Trefoil will begin blooming in early June and will continue to bloom until the end of August and while it doesn’t seem to produce a strong honey flow it is a constant, steady source of nectar for honey bees and a wide variety of native pollinators throughout the summer. In addition it produces broad expanses of beautiful yellow bloom in high summer when nearly everything else is dry and dull and burned out, so it has some definite aesthetic advantages too.

Like most plants here in the west Trefoil does better with irrigation, but does surprisingly well under dryland conditions as well once it is established, particularly if the water table is fairly high and there is some sub-irrigation.

For locals there are several good stands in Boulder County coming into bloom, and if you have an acreage and want to consider trefoil take a look. Look at the fields on the east side of 75th Street south of the St. Vrain River, again on the east side of 75th north of Hygiene and south of Highway 66, on the north side of Highway 66 west of 75th all the way to McCall Lake, and finally on the north side of Oxford Road east and west of 63rd Street. There may be others I haven’t seen, but this will give you an idea of what good stands of Trefoil look like.

Change of habitat and lack of forage are often cited as some of the reason bees are struggling and in the extensive monocultures of the Midwest this no doubt plays a role. I don’t think that’s the case here in Boulder County, we still have a fairly mixed habitat with wild land along major irrigation canals and roadsides, but we have lost sweet clover for the most part and the new Roundup Ready technology has probably reduced the number of flowering weeds on cultivated land and in field margins and fence rows.

Larger plantings of Birdsfoot Trefoil could occupy a niche in production agriculture while providing a food source for a wide range of pollinators at the same time, so if you have an acreage consider adding Trefoil to your seed mix the next time you replant.

The 4th of July is here and this is the middle of the beekeeper’s summer. If we are going to make a crop this is when it begins. After the 4th the second cutting will start to bloom on those fields cut the earliest and the honey flow from alfalfa can stretch out through July and into August, the last of the flow coming from the fields that had late first cuttings.

Keep your fingers crossed. My numbers are down because the losses have been so high over the past several years, but I’m not quite out yet and with a good strong honey flow I won’t be completely skunked and will be able to get some honey into the hands of some of my long time customers. ❖