Bee forage record keeping

Having started my bee forage map, I’m now entering the various plants I’ve identified into a spreadsheet, so I can record when they flower and how interested the bees are in them. Lucky for me, I’ve been recording the flowering habits of plants at our place for a few years. But just because something flowers does not mean it is of interest to the bees. So I’ve created a subset of my flowering data specific to bee-attractiveness and am trying to record how ‘keen’ the bees are for the flowers, and noting when they are seen to be collecting nectar and/or pollen from them.

I’m also drawing on the research of others. For example, the Flowering ecology of honey producing flora in SE Australia report (free to download as a PDF from here) includes data gathered from commercial beekeepers across south-eastern Australia as to which species flower when (and how frequently – many native plants do not flower every year), whether the bees use them for nectar or pollen, and the perceived quality of each of them. That’s a handy resource for me, and also something to compare my own, locally-specific data with as I gather it!

Why am I using a spreadsheet? It’s just my tool of choice. You could record this information any number of other ways. I like the flexibility spreadsheets offer in terms of manipulating data, drawing charts and the like. Besides, it seems I’m developing a reputation for being a spreadsheet junkie, so I may as well live up to it, right?!

The table above (click on it for larger view) is a simplification of what I’m doing. The blue shading represents the weeks the plant is in bloom. This could come from observations of when the plants have flowered, or projections using books, the internet, plant tags or seed packets, for when they are expected to flower. Of course, I have more than ten plants. But hopefully you can see this is a wonderful visual tool to help identify when there might be fewer plants flowering. I’m further color coding mine (of course!), to allow me to see not just what is flowering, but when the flowers are offering pollen and/or nectar. If I keep at it, I’ll also be able to compare the data across years and with my other records like how well my fruit and vegetables were pollinated or how much honey the bees produced.

How can bee forage maps and data be used in beekeeping?

They can help to identify potential lean (or boom!) times for the bees. For example, if they are dependent on a few species at a particular time of year, I might try to increase my own plantings to help ‘fill’ that gap. Similarly, I might try to provide some insurance, in the form of alternate forage sources, against particular challenges like drought or years with lower nectar flows.

For beekeepers who move their hives, mapping bee forage can help schedule their moves and choose locations that take advantage of the best forage.

I can’t provide all the forage a colony of bees require within our property, nor could I confine the bees to that property even if I wanted to. The bees’ ability to roam is part of the attraction of beekeeping in an urban area. By increasing my knowledge of which species offer which types of forage and when, hopefully I’ll have a picture that gives me early warning of forage shortages and the ability to plant to help overcome those threats. 

And it’s not just about honey bees ...

While I’ve called this a bee forage mapping exercise, of course I’m actually collecting data that can be used for a range of purposes. In the process of regularly observing which flowers are attracting honey bees (and whether they are gathering pollen or nectar from them), I’m also building up a resource that notes which other pollinators are visiting flowers, what they are doing while there, whether the species seem to interact.

I also hope to apply the knowledge I gain to encourage other species. The flowering pattern records may help me plant to better provide for native pollinators, beneficial insects and birds, as well as honey bees.

While my approach will sound like a lot of effort to some, even drawing a simple sketch map and thinking a little about bee (and other pollinator) forage patterns, as well as the plants and their locations can be a valuable tool for your garden, biodiversity and the pollinators.