by Karen Lauterbach, EMGV
I have gardened for most of my life, but it wasn’t until I became a beekeeper that I learned about the “summer dearth.” That’s the term beekeepers use to describe a shortage of nectar-producing flowers. Nectar, the sugary liquid produced by flowers, entices bees to flowers to help with pollination, while at the same time providing food for the bees.
In North Carolina, the summer dearth follows the spring abundance. The majority of nectar that bees collect in the spring comes from trees. Beekeepers talk about the nectar flow, which in the Piedmont region of North Carolina usually begins in late March and ends in June. Local beekeeper listservs are full of reports of the first tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera) blooms, which provide the bulk of the nectar that bees in North Carolina’s Piedmont turn into honey each spring.
“The tremendous amount of flowering plants we have in spring, mostly tree flowers that are unnoticed by normal people, make the pretty little garden flowers we have in summer look like nothing at all,” explains Randall Austin, a North Carolina Master Beekeeper.
By mid-June, he said, the tree flowers have stopped blooming, and that’s when the abundance of nectar subsides. Beekeepers generally harvest honey in June. They leave the honey the bees produce during the summer and early fall for the bees.
Just as the nectar flow is declining, honey bee populations are exploding. Hives generally have the most bees in mid-summer. “It is a double-whammy of high demand and low supply,” notes Austin.
Beekeepers often feed their bees a sugar-water solution during the summer dearth. But gardeners can help by making sure they have plenty of plants in their gardens that bloom in July and August and into the fall.
“Things in the aster family are typically excellent, as are most flowers that have an “open” flower (coneflowers, for example) versus a “closed” flower (tubular flowers such as Japanese honeysuckle and tomatoes). For fans of natives, Joe-Pye weed (Eutrochium spp.) and sumac are good summer bee plants,” Austin says. There are 15 species of sumac in the United States and they all are good bee plants. Staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) is very common in our area (and everywhere) and is a great example of a bee-friendly variety of sumac that provides a lot of both nectar and pollen.
(Left to right) Plants that can help fill the void in the summer and fall for honeybee nutrition include Joe-Pye weed (Eutrochium spp.), climbing aster Ampelaster carolinianus), sumac, such as this staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina), and purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea).
Besides planting things that flower in the summer, Randall Austin notes there is another way to help: buy local honey so that your local beekeepers can continue providing free pollination services.
Additional Resources and Information
For more ideas about what to plant to help the bees, visit Chatham County Extension Agent Debbie Roos’s excellent website, check out her list of her top 25 native plants for pollinators, and visit her Pollinator Paradise Demonstration Garden in Chatham County.
The North Carolina State Beekeepers Association’s website provides information about bloom times for flowering plants that honey bees frequent for nectar and pollen.
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