Thursday, September 20, 2012

Honeybee Curiosity from the Horticulture Hotline

Honeybee Curiosity From The Horticulture Hotline
- Jessica S. Herwick

You may have heard it mentioned that the Philadelphia Master Gardeners maintain a hotline stocked with experts who are available to answer your gardening and horticulture questions (click here for more information).  The hotline operators are well versed, and love the diverse and stimulating conversations that are sparked when callers bring their variety of questions. 
Some of you green thumbs out there have been calling up and asking all about honeybees, pollinator gardens, and providing support for these tiny but important creatures.  Some of you have been inquiring about beehives and how to learn more about beekeeping.  Pollinator gardens and beekeeping are steadily becoming more important to our ecosystem functions; not to mention the need for pollination to support the production of berries, fruits and veggies in our gardens and orchards.
The Master Gardeners would like to encourage all gardeners to consider this important part of our plants life cycles as they plan, plant and harvest their garden areas.  In response to your questions through the horticulture hotline, here is more information about honeybees, honey, beekeeping, and the plants that support this cycle. The Master Gardeners of Philadelphia hope you can find something in here to spark your interest.  It can be easy (and productive for your garden or landscape) to add plants, shrubs and herbs that will flower throughout the seasons and provide the much-needed supports for pollinators. 


 You may remember from your earth science classes that honeybees (and other pollinators such as butterflies and hummingbirds) are essential in pollinating our garden beds, flower gardens and orchards. Obviously, the pollinator responsible for concocting the nectar of the gods is the honeybee. The honey we eat is flower nectar that honeybees produce by collecting nectar, holding it in a special part of their body to process the nectar, and then dehydrating the potion to enhance its nutritional properties, finally storing this in their honeycombs to be used as food.
They use their long, tube-like tongues like straws (called proboscis) to suck the nectar out of the flowers and they store it in their stomachs and carry it to the beehive. While inside the bee's second ‘honey’ stomach, the nectar mixes with the proteins and enzymes it produces and converts the nectar into honey. The honey is dropped into the beeswax comb, comprised of hexagonal cells made of wax, produced by the bees. Bees fan their wings to evaporate and thicken the honey (note: nectar is 80% water and honey is about 14-18% water). When this is done, the bees cap the honeycomb with wax. This process is repeated until each comb is full.
Over the winter, blossoms, and therefore nectar and pollen, are nearly impossible to find for long periods of time. The bees will tap into the capped honeycombs to feed themselves. However, a hive only needs a small portion of honey to survive the winter, so the extra honey can be harvested by beekeepers and processed to sell and bring to your kitchens without damaging the natural life and feeding cycle of the honeybee hives.

PSU OFFERS AN ONLINE BEEKEEPING CLASS (for anyone who wants to learn)!

Whether you are an experienced beekeeper, a new beekeeper, or thinking about starting a backyard beehive, Penn State Beekeeping 101 is a one-of-a-kind completely online learning experience.
Expert instructors will walk you through all of the basic knowledge to start hives in your backyard.
Beekeeping 101 is suitable for both beginner beekeepers and those with experience who want continuing education.
Individual Registration costs $189.00
For more information or to register for this class, go to -


Outlined below are 5 suggestions that will attract and feed your pollinators, but will also result in numerous types of tasty honey if you’re an adventurous urban or rooftop beekeeper!  These 5 plants are some of my favorites.  As a matter of fact, I have 4 of the 5 growing in my yard at home!  Honeybees need an available source of nectar as well as pollen in order to sustain, so give them plants that provide a variety of both and keep them coming back for more.  Some of the suggestions below provide both pollen and nectar. Some provide only one or the other.   

1. Borage (Borago officinalis)
 Self-seeding, medicinal plant that can over-winter. Young leaves and blueish-purple  blossoms are edible and may be used in salads. Provides spring forage for honeybees, and blooms into the summer months.
Edible Annual, Nectar
2. Phacelia, Tansy (Phacelia tanacetifolia)
One of the best spring forage sources for honeybees. Blooms 45-60 days and continuously produces nectar throughout the day. Can be seeded several times per year. Prefers three feet of topsoil.
Annual, Nectar and Pollen
3. Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis)
Prolonged bloom of 45 - 50 days generally in summer, but with occasional blooming in warmer, autumn seasons. Delicate honey with very light, pinkish color.
Perennial Edible Herb, Nectar
4. Elderberry Bush (Sambucus nigra)
Blooms for 10 - 15 days, but honeybees will flock to this shrub when it is in bloom. The annual variety of elderberry, Sambucus ebulus, is also a good honeybee plant. 
Edible Fruit Bearing Shrub, Nectar and Pollen
5. Bergamot (Monarda didyma)  Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa)
Also known as bee balm or oswego-tea – hardy perennials topped by crowns studded with lipped flowers, blooming from summer into fall. There are many varieties of this perennial with a range of colored flowers from bright pinks and reds, to purple and even white.  Bergamots prefer a slightly moist spot with full sun.

WARNING - English Oak, Common Oak (Quercus robur )
Oaks are important trees for beekeepers to know about. They bloom in May or June and the nectar is poisonous for bees; when fed to larvae, the larvae can die. It is important to have other nectar sources for honeybees during the oak nectar flow. The nectar is not poisonous for humans.

Some Websites Where You Can Learn More…
About Honey, Honeybees and Beekeeping
PDF Guidebook created by the PSU Cooperative Extension,  Lots of detailed information specific to the Pennsylvania Climates!
This page describes beekeeping in urban and suburban areas, and tips on how to be a successful city beekeeper. Do not try at home without the proper instruction!

Honey From The Hood!
Check out the fabulous honey made right here in Philadelphia!

About Plants that attract, feed and support a variety of pollinators
PDF guidebook (printable) developed and published by the USDA Forest Service providing a guide to providing habitats for pollinators in the eastern United States.

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