Phenology and Bees : A journey through The Wheel of the Year…
“They” say every flower blooms in its own time, and springtime in the Pacific Northwest certainly makes the point. Folks in our Bioregion often joke that if you do not like the weather here, wait ten minutes! This season it has become increasingly clear that Sister Spring has a mind of her own! As we endure one of the coldest, wettest springs on record we can only wonder what the impact will be in our apiaries and gardens.
The study of Phenology is a wonderful tool to make such predictions. This practice is known not only as the origin of scientific study, but the legacy of thousands of years of citizen science. Phenology is the observation of reoccurring biological events in Nature influenced by the seasons. It is the migration of the salmon in the late fall, the first lilac blooms in spring and of course for beekeepers’ swarm season, nectar flows and dearth’s! These seasonal indicators are not following dates on a calendar to know when to engage these key life processes. They are responding to real time observable conditions present in the bioregion. Primarily, the sunshine that warms the earth and the effects of our changing climate on the web of life that binds us all. Science has proven what Indigenous folks and early civilizations always knew, that Nature’s alarm clock is temperature dependent, and the development rate of both plants & insects rely on the accumulated heat of the spring and summer to sequence through these key life processes and associated phenomena. Nowhere is this more seen or felt than in the practice of beekeeping.
Beekeepers are some of the most informed phenologists in the world. This is due to the extreme influences weather has on our practices and the industry of agriculture. While commercial beekeepers get the jump on the season by bringing their hives to the warm early spring of Central California. Backyard & bioregional beekeepers must patiently wait out the long winters in their region.
In the PNW when the first native Osoberry blooms (Oemleira cerasiformis) many of us feel comfortable declaring our hives overwintered. This first food of spring heralds in the beginning of our season right around Spring Equinox and is the first consistent form of nectar and pollen in the bioregion not only for honeybees but other pollinators as well. For those of us located along the lush riparian areas of the Willamette Valley the Maple bloom ushers in our swarm season and the steady increase of the brood nest from this abundant source of forage. These seasonal nectar and pollen flows feed more than just our bees. The gentle abundance of consistent nectar and pollen will feed hosts of wildlife as the sustenance travels through the web of life gaining nutritional momentum. From bud burst to bird migration nature’s rhythm is defined by the keystone species that uphold the ecosystem and its kinships, of which we know Honeybees reign supreme.
While some folks debate whether climate change is real, Phenologists have been tracking bioclimatic changes in the historical record for thousands of years. Just consult your Old Farmer’s Almanac! This collecting of the observational data of weather, overall precipitation, and biological events in Nature allows us to see patterns, trends, and when mismatches occur. It tells us Spring is definitely Springing earlier since the 1970s but as this year’s conditions demonstrate, that does not mean it’s all sunshine and daisies! Changes in climate trends lead to a chaotic up and down rollercoaster of weather leading to mistiming of important natural cycles all life is dependent on. This also creates trends of mismatching, when conditions do not line up with the biological needs of the organisms that depend on them. This can lead to catastrophic impacts on the ecosystem. For an example close to home, the fruit trees budded out early with the unseasonably warm February temperatures we had. Those blossoms and subsequent nectar flows were greatly impacted by the freezing temperatures and snow we experienced in March. This mismatch is directly experienced by beekeepers in that our bees could not build up their usual stores in March and April. Many queen breeders experienced poor grafting and mating outcomes. Many beekeepers are feeding in a time that is usually abundant with nectar. Careful observation of this pattern means we will be even more dependent on the Blackberry bloom this year (an already fickle nectar source) if we are to have ample stores for winter, let alone a honey harvest.
Tracking these real time events allow us to contribute our human intelligence in collaboration with Nature. We can use this detailed data to inform our manipulations in step with Nature and its effect on the brood nest rather than arbitrary dates on a calendar. This is important because the expansion and contraction of the brood nest is initiated and sustained by weather and available nectar and pollen sources. When the seasonal indicators are delayed or mismatched, we must recognize this and pivot our practices to align with the needs of the organism we are tending. For example, this year we know that our bees lacked enough dry days to take advantage of available forage in March and April. Honeybees rely on this crucial time to bounce back after winter. In April alone we had 7.12 inches of overall precipitation! The low temperatures in March and April were on average around 25 degrees! This knowledge is useful as we plan our season, from feeding to queen rearing and adding supers, all these practices require phenological perspective for success.
Creating a phenology Wheel of the Year is where folk wisdom meets science and it’s much more dependable of a forecast than historical data. To begin, use the wheel template or a journal. Chart the observable high and low temperatures each month and the overall monthly precipitation for your closest weather station. Not the monthly averages but real time, observable conditions. List the flowering plants within a 3-mile radius of your apiary and garden for each month. Not only should your phenology notes include information about your bees and the plants that feed them, but other relationships you have with the natural world around you. If you are a fungi enthusiast record when the first morels popped at your spots, or for the herbalists when the cottonwood buds were ready to harvest. Take note of the seasonal changes in Nature that are significant to you.. This practice encourages and empowers you to be in a deeply rooted relationship with the Earth and your place in the web of life. Becoming a competent beekeeper is not consulting the calendar as to your manipulations. It is to understand and respond accordingly to real time conditions and the effects on the brood nest. With this knowledge comes the power to be an active collaborator to not only the health and wellbeing of your bees but of all life on Earth.
For more information about phenology and beekeeping Come to our 2022 Bee Camp at Wild Everlasting Farm June 10,11& 12!
Or visit https://u.osu.edu/beelab/phenology/
And the Aldo Leopold foundation https://www.aldoleopold.org/teach-learn/phenology/
For tickets and information about 2022 Bee camp…