Copper Bee Apiary

A garden apiary in Whittlesford, Cambridge, UK - honey bees and their beekeeper Hilary van der Hoff.

Winter Flowers

We have a Christmas Box (Sarcococca) in the front garden, covered in sweet flowers, which the bees have been visiting.

They seem to be collecting nectar rather than pollen. Their pollen baskets are empty and I think in a couple of the photos you can see that they are extending their tongues into the base of the flowers. Here's a close-up:

Incidentally, a word about photographing bees on flowers. Bees are too busy to pause for many Kodak moments. And if they do, you can be sure my camera will be focusing on something else. I suppose that's why BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year tends not to be won by people who've just whipped a camera phone out of their pocket.

Anyway, I had some questions. Are those flowers really producing nectar? Does the nectar taste like the flowers smell? Would honey from the nectar taste like that too? Try tasting the flowers...yes, I think there is a sweetness there.

Under the microscope, I tried to see whether there was nectar at the base of the flowers. Removing the stamens to get a better look, I saw a shiny green middle, and perhaps knocked some tiny drops of nectar from it on to the petals...but I'm not sure.

Tasty crocus

Early nectar is vital for the honey bees. In the hives, brood numbers are growing while honey reserves are dwindling.

They need pollen too, but they seem to be finding that, as bees return to the hive laden with full pollen baskets.

In the apiary we have a few crocuses, which the birds have thoughtfully eaten the petals off to help the bees get to the pollen.

There is also this plant, which for some time I tried to eradicate from romping round the pond, but my efforts were unsuccessful:

It turns out to be the Winter Heliotrope. Apparently it is a good source of early nectar, although I have not subjected it to the same investigations as the Christmas Box. Anyway I am now pleased to have it here for the bees. It turns out that this plant is rather like the Ents from the Lord of the Rings, insofar as it has male and female forms but only the males are to be found. The plant was introduced from Africa, but only the male. The female plants are absent from Britain. Welcome to Copper Bee Apiary, Winter Heliotrope.

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