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The Importance Of Forage For Bees


Article by: Peter Clark
Published by: The Gauteng Smallholder Magazine

What bees eat and how they collect their food, by Eastern Highveld Beekeepers Association stalwart.

The availability of pollen and nectar from flowers, ie, the forage, is at the very heart of keeping bees: no forage, no swarms, no bees, no honey. Bees will simply vacate their hives and swarm off if moved into an area when there is little or no forage.

Forage comprises nectar for honey which is the carbohydrate, providing energy, and pollen their protein, for the sustenance of their bodies and water for their wellbeing.

House bees, young bees and nurse bees consume nectar and pollen to which they add enzymes from their own digestive systems, to produce
royal jelly to feed to the very young developing larva and daily to their queen to maintain her egg-laying ability.

Through the seasons (and commencing with winter), there is not much about and the bees are surviving on their winter stocks from the previous season. There will be minimal flying, only to fetch water. But as the weather starts warming, the days lengthen and scout bees fly in search of forage. For example, on a certain early spring day a scout bee discovers pollen yielding plants two kilometers in an easterly direction from the hive.

The scout will return to the hive and with excited waggles she dances over the combs to alarm the other worker bees.
There are a variety of dances to convey the distance to the newly discovered pollen and nectar source, and the direction to an angle of the direct rays of the sun. These waggling dances vary from circular clockwise and then anti-clockwise, from figures of eight clockwise and anticlockwise and at different angles on the face of the combs on which they are dancing.

Interested workers encircle this dancing bee and attend to the communication signals, while at the same time the dancing bee secrete from her mandibles a minute portion of the nectar of the plants that she has discovered to these workers, to convey the odour of the flowers from which she had gathered the pollen or nectar.

Suppose the entrance of the hive faces north and 30 degrees east of north are the direct rays of the sun. Out of the hive, the foraging workers fly, take the angle to the sun and the distance as conveyed by the number and rapid succession waggles of the dancer.

After flying the 2km distance for some minutes, their two very sensitive antennae locate the odour for which they are searching. They gather the pollen for which they came and a little nectar and return to the hive.

On arrival, they off-load the pollen into a pollen storage cell and then regurgitate the nectar to another worker bee while performing their waggle dance to convey their message to others.

Throughout the days of the period of the pollen or nectar flow they daily gather until the flows are over, which might be for a week or up to 30 days.

As the swarm needs pollen, the bees search for and gather pollen and as the swarm needs nectar they gather nectar, but never nectar and pollen on the same foraging flight. When collecting pollen, the foraging bee will only visit the same flower species secreting the same pollen and not mix other pollen from another species of flower on the same gathering flight, and similarly with collecting nectar (which is why kinds of honey taste and look so different when not blended together into a commercially viable single large quantity for mass supermarket sale).

When the spring pollen flow is being secreted by various flowers the bees do not seem to be choosy to prefer a type of pollen from a special source. Pollen is pollen and that is that but in the case of nectar, the bees are more selective. Should there be a variety of flowers secreting nectar at the same time, the bees will draw from the flowers with the higher sugar content in the nectar rather than spend valuable time taking nectar from a less concentrated sugar source.

For example, if a beekeeper places hives around a pumpkin field to pollinate the crop, but on an adjoining farm within about 2km away
another farmer plants buckwheat, the bees will fly to the buckwheat before they spend their time on the pumpkins and poor pollination of the pumpkin crop results. Although the buckwheat nectar makes honey that is dark and has an unpleasant musty flavour but
a large variety of minerals, it is greatly preferred by the bees.

How does pollination actually occur? Well, as a byproduct of nectar collection. The foraging worker bee delves deeply into the base of
the flower to suck up the nectar with her long probosci’s tongue, drawing up the nectar into her special carrying stomach, and when loaded
she returns to the hive.

But at the same time particles of pollen from the anthers of the flowers adhere to her hairy thorax and as she visits another flower of the same species the pollen rubs off on to the stamen of the next flower and completes the pollination of that flower.

In the beehive, she faces the recipient bee face to face and touches her antennae to her recipient’s antennae as a greeting and conversation of sorts as she regurgitates the nectar to a house bee or young bee, who passes it to another bee and again from other bees to others as a process of dehydrating the nectar. They also add enzymes from the hypopharynx glands in their heads which converts the sucrose sugar of the nectar to fructose and glucose sugars, the two principal sugars of honey (although honey contains up to nine other minor sugars).

After the nectar is reduced to a thicker mass it is stored in the cells. At night or on rainy days when the bees are unable to forage, they fan with their wings at the entrance of the hives to create an outward draught, which draws off the excess moisture from the nectar until the moisture content is reduced to less than 19% and the cell is then capped with wax.

A resident non-migratory strong swarm in the company of 15 other hives on a site of two good yielding periods of forage yielding flowers, will annually yield 20 to 25 kg of capped honey.

However, place 30 swarms on the same site, and the average yield will be halved to 10 to 12 kg of capped honey as there is only that
much nectar available within the reach of the swarms’ foraging radius.

Therefore, in an area where there is a vast number of hobbyist beekeepers, or commercial beekeepers, overstocking holding sites
awaiting the following pollination contract periods, the honey yields on good swarms can be reduced to an average of 6 to 8 kg per hive, which is hardly enough to carry the swarm through the winter dearth period, and the bees will starve or abscond to abandon the overstocked

Therefore, good beekeeping is all about ensuring the forage to sustain the swarms and it should be stressed that, to advance beekeeping, it is not that additional number of beekeepers are required but that mass planting of good, correct, sustainable supporting forage yielding plants is necessary.

By Eastern Highveld Beekeepers Association stalwart

Peter Clark
071 084 6971

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