Dry early spring stresses bees

Bob Dluzen
Special to The Detroit News

So far, this dry spring is turning out to be a mixed blessing. On one hand, the dry, warm weather is allowing gardeners to get an early head start on their gardens. It’s so early in fact, gardeners are finding some of their go-to garden centers and greenhouses don’t have some of their favorite plants in stock yet.

On the flip side, the droughty conditions are causing problems for many pollinators, especially honeybees.

Spring flowering plants need adequate water to produce nectar. Their blossoms may look normal to us but the nectar volume is too small for bees to efficiently collect during extended dry periods. That means bees will have to visit the same flower several times in order to get any nectar at all in some cases.

After a long winter, springtime can often be tough on honeybees. The colony’s food reserves are low, as well as the number of worker bees still left alive in the hive. Too much departure from normal weather conditions can wipe out a colony if it is put under additional stress.

Many plants we consider weeds have uses as food and medicine.

Feral honey bees, wasps, and other nectar feeding insects can also put a lot of pressure on a beekeeper’s domesticated hives. The wild insects are also feeling the hunger pangs caused by a shortage of nectar.

This is the time of year when beekeepers repopulate any hives that have died out over winter. They use “packaged bees” that are raised in southern climates and are shipped to beekeepers in Michigan in the early spring. These packaged bees do not have the numbers to defend their new homes against marauding feral insects. Even other stronger nearby colonies will sometimes raid their weaker neighbors under stressful conditions. As a result, beekeepers have to be extra careful to give their new bees every advantage they can.

A standard management technique is to feed new honey bees sugar water to supply them with a source of carbohydrates until the nectar begins to flow. They also feed pollen substitutes in the form of patties made of various plant based protein sources.

Sugar water and faux pollen are seen by other hungry insects as an easier way to gather food rather than flying around scrounging up what they can get from low-nectar producing flowers. So beekeepers have to make sure they do not let their hives become a target.

If the dry weather turns into a drought, beekeepers will have to continue feeding well into summer so their colonies have enough food to raise enough new bees in order to build up their population to the point that they will be able to survive the next winter.

Predicted thunderstorms will go a long way to help feed the bees.