Honey Bees and Tansy

ImageIt’s late July and the bees are kicking into gear on the tansy. I never gave tansy much thought, in fact I never really took much notice of it at all until It started growing in my yard years before I kept bees. Tansy is rather tall. It grows to over four feet here in Western Massachusetts. It’s considered a wildflower but you have to look close to realize that the little yellow “buttons” are actually flowers. You don’t see the typical petals as on other flowers. 

The book Plants and Beekeeping by E.N. Howes, published by Faber and Faber says this about tansy:

“Honey bees do visit the flower heads…..and have been observed probing for nectar as well as gathering pollen. However they do not visit in large numbers”   American Honey Plants by Frank C. Pellet doesn’t have a listing for tansy as a bee plant.

Nevertheless, the honey bees are out there all over my tansy, joined by bumblebees, other native bees and other insects.

by the proboscis sticking out and the pollen on the legs of this honey bee, you can tell she is making good use of these tansy flowers Its a little tough to get good photos with a macro lens, as the bees don’t stop in one spot for long, working the flowers very quickly. Your best bet is to catch one sucking up some nectar as in the photo above.The leaves of the tansy plants



I’ve heard and read that tansy acts as a mosquito repellent, so I decided to give it a try. One night before going to an outdoor play in an area that had plenty of mosquitoes, I picked some tansy leaves in the front yard and brought them with me. When we got there, I crushed the leaves and put some in the collar of my shirt, hat brim and on my lap. Although some mosquitoes buzzed around me, I didn’t get a single bite. I would have to experiment more to see if it was actually the tansy that worked, but I will surely try it again. Tansy is also used in the garden to ward off harmful insects.

Here is some information from,and a link to the site Our Herb Garden:  http://www.ourherbgarden.com/tansy-companions.html

“Tansy is reputed to be a general insect repellant, deterring many non-nectar eating insects. Our research found that tansy is reported to specifically repel Ichmeumoid wasps, Japanese beetles, striped cucumber beetles, squash bugs, sugar ants, mice, fleas and moths. Tansy is particularly attractive to honeybees. Be cautious where you plant tansy as it is quite toxic to many animals. Never plant tansy where livestock browse or graze.”Image

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Milkweed for Honey Bees

ImageIt’s the last day of June, the milkweed flowers have recently begun to open, and the bees are starting to work them. Milkweed is abundant in Western Massachusetts, and can be found up and down the street where I live. I’m lucky to live in an old mill house along a river on a dead end street. There are no houses on the other side of the street so there is plenty of space for wild flowers and “weeds” of all types. Milkweed is also known as butterfly flower and silkweed.  If you break the stem, it oozes a milky white stick sap. If you open a seed pod late in it’s stage of development you can see the long silky white hairs. Each is attached to a seed and is the means by which they are dispersed. According to American Honey Plants by Frank C. Pellet and published by Dadant, there are over 55 recognized species of milkweed in North America.

Information from Weeds of the Northeast by Richard H. Uva, Joseph C. Neal, and Joseph M. DiTomaso and published by Cornell University Press states that, “Most milkweed plants emerge from overwintering root buds. These are more robust than seedlings…seedlings do not flower the first year of growth.”

You can find milkweed growing in fields and along roadsides. It prefers well drained soil. Milkweed doesn’t just benefit honey bees. You’ll find a good variety of native bees and other insects partaking in it’s sweet nectar. The flowers are very fragrant and pleasant.

There is one “catch” to milkweed that I learned only after I started keeping bees. One day as I was observing honey bees collecting pollen on the milkweed in my yard, I noticed a bee going in circles on one of the flowers. I wondered why she would be doing that and after closer observation I realized that one of her legs was stuck in the flower. After doing some research, I learned that the pollen sacs of common milkweed have v shaped hooks which often snag the legs of insects that visit them. Some may lose a leg escaping while others can’t escape at all and die. I have found an occasional dead honey bees and other insect on milkweed flowers.

There is at least one other interesting fact about milkweed they you may already know. Milkweed is the only food source used by Monarch Butterfly larvae. The butterflies lay their eggs on milkweed and when the larvae hatch they feed exclusively on the milkweed. For more information about their life cycle as well as some great photos of monarch butterflies, check out this link. http://www.monarch-butterfly.com/#Life-Cycle

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Don’t Sell Yourself Short

This will be a short post.
Just the other day, I read an article posted by a farmer who sells fresh eggs for five dollars a dozen from his truly free range chickens. He went through an entire cost analysis for everything involved throughout the laying lifetime of one hen, and what it costs to produce the eggs.
He also explained that when you buy from a nearby neighbor who has a half-dozen hens in the back yard for fun, and they are only charging three dollars a dozen, they are not trying to make a profit or a living off of those eggs. They are just trying to sell what they can’t use themselves and recoup part of their costs. As I was reading this, I thought, “This is so true with honey as well.”

Well wouldn’t you know it, but I got home today after adding supers to a few hives, and doing some sheet rocking with my son, and there is a message on my answering machine. It went like this: “Hi Tony this is *** and I want to buy some honey from you for $5 a pound, the price I was getting it for from ****** who is moving out-of-town. He gave me your name. Call me or stop in my barbershop.

This is all fine and good except I sell my honey for $7.50 a pound. They other guy had a full-time government job which payed well with benefits and a retirement plan. He kept a few hives for fun. The honey was secondary, in fact he hated the whole process of extracting honey and would prefer to just work on the hives.

Like the person with the $3/dozen eggs, the honey he sold helped cover some of his costs and that’s all he cared about.

I love keeping and watching honey bees, but I can’t afford to lose money keeping them. If I were losing money I’d have to quit because my pockets aren’t deep enough to pay for such an expensive hobby. That being said, I do make some profit selling the honey, but a good portion of my beekeeping income comes from candle making.

I’m not trying to put anyone down, but a better message on my machine would have been: Hey Tony, this is ***. The guy I buy honey is moving away and he recommended you as a possible source. I was wondering what size jars you sell and how much you get for them. Give me a call, or stop by my barbershop and let me know.”

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Swarm Season is Here


I’ve gotten two calls for swarms in the last two weeks and both were a little unusual. The first was from a woman about 20 miles away who said she went to clean her above ground swimming pool, and found that there were bees all over the ground. She emailed me a photo from not too close up, and I confirmed that they were honey bees. She said she didn’t see any hanging from the pool or anywhere else. A short while later, I heard from Betterbee that our packages had arrived a day early and we could pick them up.

That being a priority, I told the woman not to do anything drastic like spraying the bees to kill them, that I’d call her back when I got home, and that there was a chance they’d be gone by that time. Sure enough, after we made the 3 hr round trip, the swarm had left.

A week later, a friend in town about 7 miles away called in the early evening to say he had a swarm in one of the trees in the backyard. I asked the  usual questions like how long it had been there and how high up in the tree it was. He said it wasn’t there in the morning and it was near the ground, so I told him I’d be over. What I didn’t realize before I got there was that “low to the ground” meant on the trunk, not on a low hanging branch. I would have brought my bee vac, if I had known.

I got my equipment together, including an empty 10-frame deep box and some frames of drawn out comb. Next, I attached a bottom board using hive staples. Then I screwed a piece of pine in place to close off the entrance. Finally I grabbed a screened inner cover that I keep on hand for just such an occasion, a ratchet strap, some screws and a screwgun.  note: you can find plans for the screened inner cover in my book  Build Your Own Beekeeping Equipment.


A closer view of the swarm wrapped around the trunk and going from the ground up to about four feet.A Wrapped Swarm

I ended up using a sheet of paper to “shave” the bees off the tree. They were many layers deep. As I filled the sheet, I poured them into the box. Every so often I would hold the box up to the tree to see if there were any reaction.



Eventually I figured I had the queen because when I held the box up to the tree, the bees started marching down the tree and into the box. You could really smell the strong lemony pheromone that the bees were giving off and see them fanning to attract the rest of their sisters. They covered a full ten frames.IMGP8277


It’s a good sign when the bees start marching down into the hive box. This is a pretty good indication that the queen is in there.

I screwed the screened inner cover on top and added the ratchet strap for extra security, then loaded them into the back of the truck.

All in all counting travel, it took about 2 1/2 hrs from the time I left my house until I got home, and it was dark when I arrived. I placed the hive in a cool spot in the backyard and let them sit for a day, occasionally giving them some water. The next day we moved them to their permanent location. I hoped that by keeping them in the box for a day, they would adjust and not abscond. When we placed the hive in it’s new home, we added a box of foundation on top to be sure they wouldn’t feel crowded and since a new swarm is anxious to build comb, they would have frames to draw out when they felt they were needed. Immediately upon opening the entrance, bees started cleaning out the hive and taking orientation flights. We hope they do well.


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It’s nice to see some bees buzzing again

After losing the hives in the backyard over winter, it’s been a disappointment not seeing any bees around as things were starting to bloom. On Saturday, I picked up three packages and installed them yesterday morning. It was so nice to get back home just a few hours later and see bees on the dandelions and other flowering “weeds”

I was in the backyard transplanting some tomato seedlings into bigger pots and some bees were landing in the trays collecting water to take back to the hives. I was glad to see that they were already getting oriented to their new digs. Today is cloudy in the 40’s with a high of 50 expected, but I’ll post a few pictures on the next sunny day.

And don’t forget, if you want to build your own bee hives just pick up a copy of my new book “How to Build Your Own Beekeeping Equipment” You can find a link on the homepage.

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The Bad and the Good

First for the bad news. We checked the hives in the backyard last week and none survived. We had 5 traditional hives and one top bar. Most had very few bees left in them. There weren’t many bees on the bottom board like you would usually see in a dead out. All of the traditional hives had plenty of honey. We left most in the fall with three deeps or at least two deeps and a medium. Some still had a full 70 lbs or more of honey stores. Three were treated with the older style formic acid pads, not the quick strips. Two were not treated for mites. I didn’t use any other treatments on the hives last year. None were wrapped. I’m not sure what the answers are. It’s frustrating to see the crocuses blooming and no bees working them.

A hive we checked in nearby Williamstown is looking great. It has a very large cluster of nice dark bees. There is plenty of honey to get them through till dandelion bloom. 

We still have other hives to check this week. I’m hoping at least some have survived. At our bee club meeting on tuesday, we heard that pretty much everyone is suffering from heavy losses. One old time beekeeper in our club hasn’t bought bees in many years. He’s done splits and bred some queens and we all consider his bees “local stock” His yards were devastated. He lost 27 out of 30 hives. There is definitely something going on here besides a bad winter, which we really didn’t have. We’ve heard that losses have been heavy throughout the northeast. A state survey is being taken and I’ll post results once they are final.

The Good News:  I was contacted by my publisher at Storey and my beekeeping book should be out within the next week or two. I will post an update as soon as it comes out, with info on where to buy it for those interested.


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Planting Pussy Willows for My Bees





There is an organization in south Berkshire County, MA called Project Native www.http://projectnative.org/ that promotes the use of native plants for landscaping and wildlife food sources, rather than bringing in plants from other areas that can become problematic. About 5 or 6 years ago our bee club sponsored a talk by one of the women from project native  at our local library and she brought a variety of plants to sell.

As the honey bee queen starts ramping up egg laying in early spring pollen is needed for food. I knew that pussy willows were a good early food source for bees, so I bought one plant, put it in the backyard and watched it over the next two years. It grew, but didn’t produce any catkins, which are what we want for the bees. That fall I called Project Native to see if maybe there was a mix-up and I got something else by mistake. The woman explained that it takes a few years before the plants start producing, so I decided to stick it out one more spring. When spring came, I watched excitedly as the buds began to open and the pussy willows appeared. Once they were fully open and turned yellow with pollen  the bees were all over them. I was very happy.

In November 2012, my friend Shira was at the house and we were outside. We decided to do some pruning on the willow since it was getting taller than I wanted it to be. We really did a lot of trimming and I was going to toss the branches in the brush pile.  Shira suggested we save a few and put them in water, so we kept about a dozen and put them in a bucket of water in the kitchen to see what would happen. In a couple of weeks roots started to grow. rooted willow whips

You can see how well the roots have grown in the water. Most of these  whips will be planted near the existing one, which is in a naturally wet area of the yard. My hope is to create more of a brushy area and keep them trimmed so they don’t grow too tall. catkin with pollen

These open catkins are a real joy to have inside in the cold, snowy winter months. Soon we will transfer the whips to pots of dirt and wait for spring to plant them outdoors. Eventually the bees will have an abundance of early spring food and there will be plenty of whips to share.

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