One-Up your Beekeeping Game: learn what’s blooming

Do you know what honey bee forage is available in your area?

One thing I believe that all beekeepers can agree on is the excitement we feel when the spring season begins. We love to see that our little bees are ‘waking up’ and venturing out after so many months.

OH! And they’re bringing in pollen! Where did they get that from? Is it not too cold still? Those little girls never cease to amaze us. Well, wherever it came from it makes us happy because spring pollen means brood rearing.

The foremost thing on most of our minds is the anticipation of the first honey flow of the year. In my area of Georgia that’s Tulip Poplar or Blackberry. In our Florida area it’s Orange Blossom.

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Pollen that honey bees have foraged from spanish needle.
This is pollen collected by bees in South Central Florida at the beginning of January.
Photo by Jonathan Hargus

I’m sure that most beekeepers know exactly what’s blooming during the first honey flow in their area. And what about the second or third honey flows? Again, this depends on the geographical location. In Georgia, our second honey flow comes from Sourwood and our final flow from Goldenrod/Aster. In Florida, it’s Saw Palmetto and then Brazilian Pepper.

See? I know what’s blooming in both geographic areas where I have experienced keeping bees. And I’m sure you do too. But what about everything in between? Do you know what forage is supporting your bees before a honey flow? After a honey flow? I’m willing to bet that some of you do but that many of you do not. Why is knowing what blooms between honey flows so important?

Today I want to show you the importance of one little flower. The absence of this single flower represents life or death between honey flows in our area of South Central Florida.

Knowing what forage is available from season to season makes you and I better beekeepers. Stick with me and I’ll show you how one small flower called Spanish Needle teaches beekeepers the necessity of plant knowledge and can up their game as Keepers of the bee.

honey bee foraging on spanish needle
Spanish Needle in bloom. Photo by Jonathan Hargus©

First I’m going to give you a brief overview about Spanish Needle. Afterwards, once you understand this small flower and the role it plays as forage for honey bees, then together you and I will begin to discover the importance of learning what’s available in your area for your beehives and when.

What this will do is one simple thing: Plant the seed of awareness in your mind that will germinate into a forward-thinking beekeeper; the KEY to successful beekeeping.

If this is you already, that’s awesome and I encourage you to leave a comment down below and share with everyone reading today. Someone may live in the same area or climate as you and learn from what you have share. Let’s begin!

honey bee with pollen from spanish needle
This bright orange pollen is the sure sign that this this honey bee has been foraging on Spanish Needle. Photo by Jonathan Hargus

Spanish Needle Bidens alba There are several climates in Florida where this bee forage blooms year-round. When I was a beekeeping apprentice in Florida, I personally got to witness the Spanish Needle growing in Orange groves and along ditches, all year long.

Occasionally a light frost or freeze would find its way down to Florida and kill off the bloom but only for a short while. Before you knew it, the groves were white with their petals once again.

Some of the magic behind Spanish Needle is that it is everywhere! And that’s because orange groves are everywhere. Orange groves are ideal examples of unsustainable monocultures.

As a result, grove owners deal with a lot of disease and pests. Their solution? Chemical cocktails sprayed on groves far and wide. But Spanish Needle seems to do pretty well despite theses conditions. It thrives well in the partial shade of the trees, likes the heat and is even drought tolerant.

Can you imagine having something blooming all the time for your honey bees? Or maybe there is and it’s just a matter of learning what that is, which is the whole point I’m trying to encourage.

Despite the advantage of a virtually constant food source for bees in this area of Florida, honey bees still do better on a diet of wide variety.

honey bee foraging spanish needle
The day I took this picture was sunny, warm and had thousands of honey bees foraging Spanish Needle. Photo by Jonathan Hargus©

Unfortunately, Florida has been decimated from land clearing and development. It seems that people buy up land and do one of three things, after cutting down all the trees: They build neighborhoods or retirement villages, plant monocrops, or donate it to the cow gods.

Yes that’s right, cows have more land than people do. And no matter which of the three actions these people take, they all spray it with poisons to keep the ‘weeds‘ at bay.

With these sucky factors in mind, hopefully you can see that Spanish Needle is valuable, more so than even I originally realized. I asked my father-in-law, a Florida beekeeper, what would he do if Spanish Needle was not available for his bees.

His eyes shot up in surprise at that concept. He said despite having three separate honey flows throughout the year, if there was NO Spanish Needle he would have to constantly feed his beehives to keep them alive.

You see, he realizes the potential of one little flower. He has learned how to rely on that potential and use it to his advantage. Not every grove owner allows the Spanish Needle to grow; they will cut it down which leaves nothing for the bees in that area between honey flows.

If this is the case, the apiary may have to be relocated after honey flows in order to maintain their ability to forage.

spanish needle growing in an orange grove
These rows of citrus trees have Spanish Needle growing between them for acres and acres. Photo by Jonathan Hargus

I want to give you an example of how I have applied this knowledge to my beekeeping operation in Georgia. I have learned a great deal of which plants offer my bees forage throughout the year.

This is why I know that after Sourwood Trees have finished blooming in late summer that there is a honey dearth for 30-45 days. There is nothing blooming. This means I mustfeed my beehives during this time period until Goldenrod starts to bloom.

I want to mention briefly that Spanish Needle has medicinal uses for us people. I am not going to cover any of that today but I will caution with this: If you decide to learn more about it and even harvest it to use, DO NOT harvest Spanish Needle from agricultural areas like orange groves.

They are highly sprayed with herbicides, fungicides, pesticides and other-cides. These sprays could be mild or they could be harsh. Try to locate a source growing wild in no-spray areas

Here’s a video to learn more about Spanish Needle and its uses. Also, there are two wonderful books available on Amazon that go into detail about Florida’s edible wild plants and another on sustaining wildlife with plants at home.

honey bee foraging spanish needle
These girls can never get too much of Spanish Needle. Photo by Jonathan Hargus©

Many of us beekeepers are always looking for more information about honey bees in hopes of finding something that really works in order to secure highly productive beehives.

Today I want to suggest that sometimes when it comes to searching for more, that it is the beekeeper that needs some improvement rather than the bees. When we invest into ourselves then our bees are surely going to benefit from those efforts.

honey bee foraging greater plantain
Now here is an excellent example of a very unsuspecting, inconspicuous forage for honey bees between honey flows. What’s more, it’s everywhere in my area of Georgia.
Greater Plantain; and you can see for yourself the pollen it yields for honey bees.
Photo by Jonathan Hargus©

So get out there and sniff out those plants that are so generous to offer our honey bees the food they need to survive. Then, after learning what those plants are, perhaps you could try to protect them and maybe even propagate them. Who knows?

I always like to recommend a special book tailored perfectly to help you find which plants bloom in your area and when they bloom. After learning about forage plants, you will be surprised how often you notice it on a walk or a drive around the countryside. American Honey Plants by Frank C. Pellett. Read my review about this book on my Gear Page.

Thank you so much for joining me today! Please comment below with something you learned today or something you already knew. I would seriously enjoy hearing from you. Until next time remember,

~Weeds are Wildflowers, let them Bee.~

Jonathan Hargus/Beekeeper Extraordinaire

3 Comments Add yours

  1. There is a small ground cover that blooms in early spring called Gill-over-the-Ground. I like it because as the bees are foraging on it, you can see their pollen baskets filled with a bright, neon-orange/pink pollen. It looks really cool!

  2. Cheri says:

    My grandfather, Frank Broyles, seeded his lawn with clover and would leave the clover to bloom and start to seed before cutting the grass in the summer. It makes a soft thick lawn that doesn’t grow tall and provides pollen for a variety of insects. Better yet, cloverleaf honey has a great flavor!
    We children always knew to wear our shoes in Grandpa’s yard, or we’d be getting bee stings on bare feet. We’d be sadder though about that honeybee dying because it lost its stinger.

    1. That’s really cool! I’ll bet running around barefoot is a new experience when you get stung. If I had the land, I think I would plant Clover too. And Buckwheat! Did you ever try your grandpa’s honey?

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