Wow, what a week. Last Sunday we had no snow. On Monday we got 8″ of snow. Tuesday and Wednesday mornings the thermometer was on empty ( 0 degrees F). By Sunday the temps had increased to 60 degrees and the snow had all melted! This week looks like the daytime temps will be in the mid to upper 40s and the nights will be in the low to mid twenties. Perfect weather for making Maple Syrup.
Many beekeepers in New England also make Maple Syrup. It is a similar but very different pursuit that kind of dovetails with keeping bees. When I was a kid, I used to help my grandmother make a little syrup. We lived on a small farm down in Bozrah and had a few nice Sugar Maples to tap. We never had all the right equipment but managed to get some syrup of varying degrees of quality. If I had a sugar bush close by I guess that I would think about taking it back up. There are a couple of problems with a new endeavor, one being that the way I generally dive into projects means that I would spend a small fortune setting up a top notch sugar house and all the accompanying equipment. I am getting sick of spending money like that! My wife keeps mentioning retirement funds etc.
The other problem is that this time of the year is also when my bees need a lot of very necessary attention. When the sap is running, maple syrup producers have to hustle in order to keep up with collecting and boiling off all that water to make syrup. In times of a good run they just can’t afford the time to work bees. Because of this they generally have to ignore their bees in March and therefore often miss the important early spring management steps that result in good spring buildup of honey bee colonies. I have too much invested in bees to let that happen. My time is better spent insuring that my bees have ample nutrition so they stimulate the queen to lay up to 1200 eggs a day. I accomplish this by placing a pollen replacement patty over the cluster of bees and weekly filling of the division board feeders that are a permanent fixture in my hives.
One of the things that always amazes me is how quickly the flowers start blooming witha little warm weather. This Sunday, when I was adding Mega Bee Patties to some hives in Lebanon, I noticed a bee with lemon yellow pollen on her legs. I opened the hive to see if there had been more natural pollen coming in and sure enough, there were several hundred cells with fresh pollen in them. The queen had laid a nice pattern of eggs in the center of the frame. While there is nothing like natural pollen to get things rolling, the problem in March is that the weather will change on a dime and shut off any additional incoming pollen for days or even weeks. When the bees run out of resources, the first thing to go is brood. In many cases the bees will cannibalize young brood in order to recycle the nutrients and in severe cases avoid starvation. Enter the Beekeeper.
When I teach “Bee School” I often will say that the best time to start spring feeding is on September 15th. There is nothing like a well supplied colony of bees going into winter. This will avoid starvation and insure a good supply of stores to be used in spring to raise lots of new bees. Reality can be somewhat different. Often by March the honey and stored pollen supply are getting a little thin. Only by supplementing both incoming protein and carbohydrate sources will the queen be able to ramp up her production of eggs and the workers be able to keep the larvae developing. I generally keep pollen replacement patties on the hives until mid April when I am sure that there is a continuous influx of natural pollen. I also feed sugar syrup as long as the bees have less than three full combs of stored honey. Sometimes I have to go back to feeding when we have a long cold and rainy period in May. Most hives starve out in April or May when the nutritional demands from thousands of growing larvae quickly consume the stored reserves in a hive. Beekeeping is really about raising healthy bees, then the bees make the honey.
I am not sure what the source of the pollen was last Sunday. I think that it must have been either skunk cabbage or a Silver Maple tree. At any rate I always look forward to the first pollen as both a sign of spring and that the annual cycle has come full circle. Now I need to go make a batch of sugar syrup.