Bees gather nectar, pollen, water and resin from their environment to sustain the colony and maintain the hive. In Ireland there are a variety of sources for these.
Nectar is a sweet liquid produced by flowers in order to entice insects for pollination. The nectar collected by bees has a very high moisture content, and would ferment if left in it’s raw state. To preserve the
nectar bees transform it into honey by reducing the moisture content to around 17 – 18%, adding enzymes for preservation and sealing the stores. It is used as a sugar source, providing the energy that the bees need to keep active and maintain heat in the winter.
Water is very important for bees. They use it for diluting stored honey for consumption. Honey stores are concentrated food, and need to be diluted to about 50/50 for eating. In addition, to maintain the colony at the optimum temperature during hot weather, bees use water evaporation to cool the hive.
Pollen is used as an essential protein source, particularly for the young. The colours are surprisingly varied, and indicate what the bees are foraging on. Pollen is also a good indicator that there are young in the hive. The worker bees mix the fresh pollen with honey which helps to preserve it.
Resin is collected from trees by the bees and they use it as a filler to seal gaps, and anywhere a spot of glue might be useful.
Forage through the year
Bee forage is seasonal, and in Ireland the main sources or ‘flows’ are generally in the late spring to early summer. You can help the bees by planting their forage crops in your garden, or placing your hives where there is a forage crop close by.
Spring – The earliest you will notice bees is on the snow drops, if the weather is right, where they are looking for pollen to raise the young. Willow catkins also provide an important early source of pollen. Oil Seed Rape (Canola) that is winter sown is a substantial early source of nectar. Once they come into bloom, Apples and other top fruit provide forage. Spring dandelions have multiple florets and are a good source of pollen. Also hawthorn, sycamore, chestnut etc. In gardens, the cotoneaster is a good shrub to plant for bees, along with single flowered cherries and plums.
Summer – Blackberry, clover, and spring sown Oilseed Rape are the main sources, along with garden flowers. Rose bay willowherb (fireweed) provides both nectar and an olive green pollen.
Autumn – Heather and Ivy are the traditional main sources for the honey bees to build up stores to last them through the winter. A new arrival, Hymalan balsam, has become an extensive source of both pollen and nectar near rivers. Though rather beautiful, it is an invasive species and endangers the stability of river banks by crowding out other plants.