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The “year of” syndrome: what’s yours?

As an observer of nature, I’m always intrigued by the variation in plant performance. It seems that each year some plants thrive while others malinger. The same is true of bees and other pollinators.

My husband calls it the “year of” syndrome. For us, this was the year of the pear. Right now, I don’t care if I never see another. We’ve eaten pear pies, cobblers, pear sauce and jam, pears sliced, and poached, and baked, and smashed. My husband even tired of his endless pear/pare/pair jokes, although long after I did.

A pair of pear trees

We have two pear trees and usually one produces and one doesn’t, but this year they both erupted with fruit. And the windfall pears that littered the yard attracted entire families of deer—bucks, does, and fawns—to the point that my side yard looks like a cow pasture with thick muddy prints that fill with rain and suck at my boots. Kiss, kiss, kiss as I walk across the lawn.

This year also proved to be the year of the mason bee which, I realize, may be related to the year of the pear. My mason bee population exploded in early spring. I kept providing more and more nesting straws, and each batch was filled anew. This system works well, considering how uninspiring pear blossoms are to honey bees.

Here on my own little patch, it was also the year of the mulberry, the yellow bean, the hardy kiwi, and the dahlia. In fact, it is November 3 and the dahlias are still in bloom.

Mulberries! Kiwis! But where’s the honey?

But for every plant that has a brilliant season, there are many that don’t. Other than dahlias, the rest of my flowers were insipid. Tomatoes were scrawny, and squashes were lackluster. But the worst part for a beekeeper was an almost total lack of surplus honey. Most of my colonies put away enough honey for themselves, although some of the smaller ones needed help early on. But this winter I will be eating last year’s honey crop.

I’m not sure why this happens, but since bees are dependent on plants, and plants have good years and bad, it makes sense that nectar supplies go up and down. Because I don’t sell honey, I can just shrug and move on, but I would be upset if I were dependent on the income.

Plants and their pollinators

Although I’ve studied the relationship between plants and pollinators for years, I still find it perplexing. Take the tomatoes, for example. Bumble bees of several species were all over them and little green marbles appeared all summer long. But it ended there at the little green marble stage.

Conversely, my lemon balm bushes bloomed like crazy. They were covered with flowers, smelling citrusy and sweet on the summer breeze. In a normal year they are covered with bees of all sorts: honey bees, bumbles, wool carders, summer Osmia, and Ceratina. But this year, the bees didn’t come. The native bees ignored them and so did the honey bees. But why?

Sure, in school I studied the technical parts of farming. I’ve studied soil chemistry, soil physics, soil structure, and soil fertility. I’ve studied plant physiology, plant pathology, plant genetics, and plant production methods. Still, there are things we can’t explain, things we can’t pin down, things that cause the “year of.”

What to plant for bees?

Beekeepers often want to know the best plants to provide for their bees. But I find that what is dynamite one year fizzles the next, so it’s hard to recommend anything that works consistently. And what attracts bees is complicated by what is available. A plant that is super attractive to bees in your area may not be welcoming in another area, depending on the choices available.

What attracts bees depends on what is available.
As I’ve explained before, if you give a child a choice between ice cream or potatoes, the child will probably chose ice cream. Now give that same child a choice between potatoes or spinach, and he will probably chose potatoes. So depending on the choices available, the potatoes go from unfavored to favored.

Honey bees do the same thing, nearly always opting for the sweetest nectar. So whether the bees like your planting depends on what else is available at the moment. Perhaps that is why the bees ignored my lemon balm this year. But it doesn’t explain why the hoards of bumbles didn’t produce tomatoes. That probably has more to do with average daily temperatures, amount of sunlight, soil fertility, and available moisture.

What is your “year of”?

My point is that nature is complex with many competing interests. Beekeepers cannot blame themselves when honey crops fluctuate, nor can they blame themselves for “planting the wrong thing.” Sometimes we just have to accept the outcome without knowing the why of it.

Do any of you have experience with the “year of”? Have you had extremely good or bad honey crops for no apparent reason? Did a bee-attractive plant suddenly fail to attract? I would love to hear your stories.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

Honey bees pollinating in the year of the sunflower.
Honey bees pollinating in the year of the sunflower. Pixabay photo.

Comments

Tim
Reply

Rusty-
We also had 2 pear trees that each had a limb breaking crop. Previously the biggest crop was 3 pears/tree.

Tim

Rusty
Reply

Tim,

Interesting. Maybe it truly is the year of the pear.

Kourosh Bassiti
Reply

Not exactly apples and pears, but…..another story to relate.

Here where we live in South West France, around us each summers there are very large fields of sunflowers. Last summer when my French beekeeper friend, Michel visited me and saw the sunflower fields across our road, he said that when the flowers open up the bees will fill the supers in one week. Two weeks later my wife and I spend long hours among the sunflowers, but did not see almost ANY honeybees! The reason we discovered was that the farmers around us had planted a variety of sunflowers that were self-fertilised. The style of the flowers were apparently too long for the little tongues of our girls.

Thankfully the crop must have been low as this summer the farmers around us switched back to the old fashioned seeds. Wonderful buzzing of the bees in the fields was heard for about three weeks!

I have five Dadant hives and we collected 75 kilos of beautiful yellow honey – more than twice that of last summer. The only snag is that sunflower honey although very tasty, crystallizes quickly in the jar and is very slightly grainy and not smooth. But we love it anyway.

Thanks for your wonderful blog. – Kourosh

Rusty
Reply

Kourosh,

Your story illustrates my point. Who would have ever suspected self-fertilizing sunflowers? I’m glad they switched back to real ones!

Jeffrey
Reply

Rusty,

Usually when fruit and nut trees produce heavily it means lots of snow. The last time my plum trees were overly burdened with fruit I was stacking snow with a backhoe all winter. We had a blizzard that year too. This year not so many acorns around this side of the country. NEPA

Rusty
Reply

Jeffrey,

We won’t have lots of snow, but we’re certainly getting lots of rain.

Erik Brown
Reply

Rusty-

Ours was the year of little nectar. We had a warm early spring followed by a cold snap in Virginia. We have two large holly trees in front of our house and every year they are covered with bees, hundreds if not thousands and all kinds of species. This year the buds formed just before the cold, and I didn’t see a single flower. No bees.

Our large tulip popular and other trees met a similar fate. No pears here so I can’t comment on that.

Erik

Philippa Burgess
Reply

What I found interesting this year is my sunflower (Lemon queen). When it first came into flower in September, not one insect could be seen on it. After about 4 weeks of flowering, all of a sudden it was covered in bees and hover flies! I can only put this down to possible lack of forage elsewhere. I’ve also noticed that my Bowles mauve perennial wallflower that would ordinarily be covered in bumbles was hardly touched this year. Strange!

Philippa

Rusty
Reply

Philippa,

That’s exactly what I’m thinking. These things are impossible to understand or predict.

Marilyn
Reply

Rusty – like you, I still have dahlias blooming! For us, this was the year of the king apple. The weather was perfect for the bloom and my mason bees came out just at the right time. Our 100 year old tree usually gets rained out.

Rusty
Reply

Marilyn,

Wow. A hundred year old apple tree? That’s awesome.

Gary Jackson
Reply

I agree with the lemon balm observations.

Low amount of surplus honey this year due to nice warm spring when so many native plants blossomed at about the same time especially the various types of blackberries. A future topic of discussion might be “how many bees can a location support?

The bees thrive out here at Dabob Bay, plenty of native plants but never more than 6 healthy hives going into fall.

Thanks so much for your very healthy info.

Ruth
Reply

Mine was apples and peaches… And ragweed!

Rusty
Reply

Ruth,

Too bad we can’t trade. My peach tree died a few years back.

Robin Edmundson
Reply

For me, this was the year of French marigolds. Loads of them came up. Everywhere! They smelled wonderful and the bees loved them. Three rows of basil did fabulously, too. My tithonia got 8 feet high. The veg – not so much. The cukes sulked. The tomatoes languished. I got 3 zukes from 3 plants. ALL of my winter squash died. No rhyme or reason.

As far as the bees go, we have 15 acres of goldenrod that blooms for a solid month or more every year and at the last minute, one of my hives filled me a super…with the lightest, tangyest honey they’ve ever given me. NOT goldenrod honey. Wild aster, maybe? Too weird.

Rusty
Reply

Robin,

It sounds delish.

Ken
Reply

Here in Green Bay we have a pair of pear trees that overloaded the branches and what fell to the ground fed the wasps and hornets. Also, because of the nice periodic rain showers through out the summer, we had a lot of black and red raspberries, many apples, and a peach tree with one main branch loaded and the other main branch with none(?). My three hives were busy this summer.

Rusty
Reply

Ken,

The wasps and hornets really love the windfalls. I had lots of yellowjackets on the pears, but the deer didn’t seem to mind. But black raspberries? Omg, my favorite fruit!

Dave Felker
Reply

Good observations. I have found that honey bees in the san diego, ca backcountry love rosemary year in and year out. It blooms often and is super drought tolerant.

Ellen
Reply

I suspect the general lack of nectar this year may have something to do with the drought last summer. 2015 was much hotter and drier here in the PNW, and I don’t think the plants completely recovered over the winter and spring.

Rusty
Reply

Ellen,

I’ve wondered if that was a possibility. I haven’t worked out the details, though, because the annuals I planted this year didn’t do well either. I’m not discounting the idea, but unsure how it all works. The lack of maple, bitter cherry, and cascara nectar I think is related to the drought. But the wild berries? I don’t know.

Julia Cipriano
Reply

A late spring hard freeze killed the blossoms on most of the fruit trees here. The Montmorency cherry trees produced a record crop, though. Those trees, and the crepe myrtles later on, were so full of bees, you could hear the buzzing and humming from a good distance away. Goldenrod, flea bane, asters, clover and yarrow have all been loaded with honeybees. I stood by a large flea bane yesterday, watching hundreds of pollinators having a good ol’ time. What an assortment of wings and shapes and colors! I would say that this summer was ‘the year of the heat wave’. It was so intense, for so long, that my nursery plants barely survived, even with plenty of water. It was too hot to work outside after 9 in the morning, so a lot of ordinary yard and field maintenance just didn’t get done. An uncommon variety of weeds and wild things were able to grow unchecked. That happy fault resulted in a wonderful bumper crop of honey, with a delicate, flowery taste! Plenty for me and plenty to leave in the hives for the winter. I have decided I will not manipulate and meddle with the fields and hedgerows as much as I used to. That will surely produce a more harmonious outcome all around.

Rusty
Reply

Julia,

As soon as I reduced meddling, I noticed an increase is wild bee species. I makes an amazing difference, quickly too.

Loralei
Reply

Our pear tree exploded this year as well – the first time since we moved here 4 years ago (in Southern BC); this was my first year with a garden, but it was wonderful – lettuce, spinach, beets, strawberries, & oh, the tomatoes!! What got me, is that the raccoons got more of my tomatoes and strawberries than we did… and each of my 2 tomato plants grew nearly 6 feet tall!

As for the bees, this was my first season; I purchased a nuc on June 15th, so everything that they produced goes to them this year – one very full deep, & I have 3 frames about half full if they need it over winter.

Rusty
Reply

Loralei,

I know the feeling; I get whole packs of raccoons up in the fruit trees.

Larry
Reply

Hi Rusty,

I had the same experience with my Bartlett pear and Asian pear this year. However, I had what I feel was a very good year for the bee keeper. My 6 hives produced about 90 pounds of excess honey. I lost 2 of my 6 hives last winter. I haven’t lost a hive in several years. I split 2 of the remaining hives and was back up to 6. The 2 new hives from the same split provided the majority of the honey while 2 other hives didn’t produce enough surplus honey to make it worth harvesting. I THINK (let me emphasis “think”) the success could be due to the queen’s genetics and the airflow in the hive. All of my hives have Italians and Carniolans coming and going which tells me that my queens aren’t the ones I purchased originally, but are their daughters who went out on their mating flights and mated with a variety of drones. Another factor could be the plants here at 1,500 feet above sea level did well due to the weather in one of the many micro climates we Washingtonians are all too familiar with. But who knows. Just when I think I have things figured out, my bee girls prove to me I don’t know as much as I thought I did.

Wishing success to all,
Larry

Rusty
Reply

Larry,

I don’t think that ever changes. My bees continue to surprise me, especially when I think I have things figured out.

Rebekah Lee
Reply

I am struck by the fractals in the disk florets of the pic.

Rusty
Reply

Rebekah,

Natural structures at their finest.

Carol
Reply

Here in Alabama we have one Keiffer pear that is nearly 100 years old. It usually produces a large crop each year of the huge pears. Anyone who does canning knows about this tree and comes looking for buckets full. Over the last couple of years the branches have been too heavy for it to hold and it self pruned about one third of the tree. We have planted a few more Keiffers years ago as back up, but they don’t hold a candle to this old tree. The honey bees, bumble bees and yellow jackets cover the fruit on the ground. It’s the first place our dog runs to as soon as you let him out of the house. He tries to ‘bark’ the bees off the fruit so he can get his share. He picks the pears up gingerly and throws them up to shake off the bees. Can’t say if he ever gets stung or not! Our drought is taking its toll on everything down here.

Rusty
Reply

Carol,

I didn’t know dogs would eat pears. Mine doesn’t. But I have an everbearing mulberry with low branches. My Australian cattle dog (red heeler) stands under the mulberry and eats the fruit right off the tree. It breaks me up because he looks very un-doglike. But his favorite pastime is snapping at bees and he gets stung a lot.

Rebecca Wells
Reply

In north Mississippi, we have not had much rain this summer. Start out with four groups of bees that I caught. First of June they all had 6 to 8 frames of honey. I when in the hives around the first of August and all the honey was gone. I started feed sugar water mix to save them. Also got some pollen. I check on them yesterday and have got all back up to four to five frames. Lost one. We are having high temps for this time of year and still no rain. I have winter pollen to give if the temps go down.

Rusty
Reply

Rebecca,

It’s a good thing you were paying attention. I think a lot of new beekeepers don’t realize that the bees can quickly use up their stores in a dry summer. Good work.

Gabrielle
Reply

It was the year of no pears on our two pear trees, and half the usual amount of raspberries. Sigh. It was a very dry summer but the bees at the farm gave us a super of honey…covercropping in buckwheat and mustard paid off.

Rusty
Reply

Gabrielle,

Mmm. Buckwheat honey! How I miss it.

Rebecca Wells
Reply

Thanks. I’m trying very hard to do it right.

John Zone 5
Reply

I think it is the year of the mite. Treated with OA last week and found hundreds of dead mites on the white board. I was really surprised there were that many. I guess that is why you need to treat.

Tom Mckinney
Reply

Hi everyone!! For me it was the year of the “butternut squash” tons of them big ones! Very near my hives so I imagine that helped. It was a very wet cool beginning to the season. Here in SE pa we had a late cold snap & several inches of snow ap 9th. Fruit trees suffered no fruit. Later some tomatoes but not like usual. Mid july on to mid sept absolutely no rain very dry. So growing season not great this yr. However honey crop good! Lasted a couple extra weeks than usual due to wet spring had 5 different extractions all different honey. So far this fall peppers have been holding on many nice peppers. Temp wise pleasent days 60-70s so bees good preparing for winter. Queens have been a problem this yr. Several times queenless. Lucky to have kept several nucs so i could combine hives that were queenless. Believe me it pays big time to make nucs & have them if something goes wrong with one of your major production hives.

Rusty
Reply

Tom,

I agree on the nucs; they’ve saved me several times. We had butternut squash last night at dinner. I was wondering if I could grow them. Never tried.

Sue Steel
Reply

Here in our garden in Norfolk UK it was the year of the Bramley Apple – a wonderful cooking variety, and we have had huge quantities, and huge apples from our four year old tree. Unfortunately it also seems to have been the year of the codling moth because 75% of the apples have had caterpillars in their cores and so I’ve had to cut them all up and stew them then freeze the puree. Never mind I have lots of apple recipes, including red lentil, curry and apple puree, and Bramley lemon curd which is simply the best preserve ever!

Rusty
Reply

Sue,

You sound like me, always making the best of an iffy situation. Good for you!

Glen Buschmann
Reply

At my urban plot in south Puget Sound it was definitely apples. We only have one apple tree, but I’ve top-grafted 6 other varieties into it and this year the weather was perfect and the grafts are now mature enough to produce good amounts of fruit. We had great fruit set (too much actually) thanks to my overeager saturation of the property with mason bees, and an early dry spring, followed by abundant late spring rain to plump up the apples and (somewhat) discourage the apple maggots.

I thinned and thinned my apples, (hundreds plucked), and still more fruit than I could keep up with. And of course now I’m coveting a wonderful late apple a friend is growing, thinking how best to add it to my tree, probably am going to remove a less successful variety.

Rusty
Reply

Glen,

That sounds like fun.

Glen Buschmann
Reply

Rusty –

Fun yes, except that the best time to graft seems to happen in the early spring when I need a 26 hour day just to keep up on everything. Couple of years ago I ended up chucking more than half my scion wood after running out of time.

Glen

Rusty
Reply

Glen,

So I guess you’re too busy to give me lessons. Sigh. I did some grafting in a plant propagation course, but I’ve never done it for real.

Cal
Reply

“Year of the pear” for me, too. But, the unusual abundance of Bartlett and Comice pears likely were due more to the mason bees I put out this year than my honey bees. There were some heavy supers on the hives I wasn’t splitting by the end of the blackberry bloom, but they were mostly empty by late August. As I recall, a week or two into the blackberry flow, the rain stopped entirely for several weeks. That, along with the unusually arid year before probably resulted in very poor late nectar sources and the mediocre honey harvest I was able to take. In my area, there wasn’t the usual profusion of knapweed and goldenrod later in the summer. I did manage to pull some maple honey early in the year though. My main concern now is that the unseasonal warmth we’ve had in the PNW so far this fall will result in the bees burning through their stores faster than usual. I just stopped feeding syrup last week and provisioned the hives with a big pile of dry sugar in each as I did so. Maybe I’ll look back at it as the “winter of supplemental feeding”.

Rusty
Reply

Cal,

I agree about them burning through their food. My bees have been out flying for the last several days, so I’ve begun making candy boards early. Some of my hives won’t make it without supplementary food and I believe it’s because of the weird weather we’ve had for two years straight.

Bruce
Reply

It is good to know I am not alone in wondering why there was little surplus this year. Here in Alberta we had a really dry May and June, then seemingly endless rain in July to October. The bees seemed really busy with lots of clover and alfalfa when it wasn’t raining but there was not much to harvest. I too will be relying on last year’s harvest to do us through the winter.

Captain
Reply

In Eastern PA, we also had a freeze that knocked all of the blossoms off the fruit trees. I had no apples, peaches, plums, cherries or maple seeds. We had very few blueberries and even our brown-eyed susans never came up. But then, a bumper crop of white clover all summer and an enormous amount of Japanese Knotweed kept them busy up until the goldenrod bloomed. And now, the holly bushes seem to have bloomed again with the mild November weather. They’re covered with honey bees and bumble bees today. We had a very good honey crop this year, even with the lack of fruit trees and odd goings on.

Rusty
Reply

Captain,

I’m glad you got honey, but sorry about the fruit trees. Your situation was the exact opposite of mine.

srd
Reply

Rusty,

For me it was the year of plenty. Plenty of everything, rain in the spring, mulch from a friend”s wood works shop, 12 plants of tomatoes of 3 heirloom varieties that went crazy for us. Pole beans did really go too. Most of all was the bees. We made it through last winter with a 3 deep hive and 3, 5 frame nucs. The nucs were moved into ten frame boxes fairly early and never looked back. Each of these provided a split a little later on. For a period of about 6 weeks we caught from 1 to 3 swarms a day. We had bees at our house the brothers house and a friends house. We had bees everywhere. As the summer went on we even managed to sell 8 hives that had come to us as swarms. I never weighed the honey we harvested, but there was 5, 5 gallon buckets taken from the strongest 6 hives. As the summer went by I lost 3 hives to small hive beetles. A lesson well learned. And 2 hives to swarms that just never flourished for some reason. I tried to do TOO much at one time.

Anyhow we are down to 6 hives here 4 of which are 3 deeps each and very heavy, and 2 that we may try to move into nucs for the winter. There are 8 hives at brothers and 5 at the friends place. Those five will be moved early this coming spring.

I’ve managed to cut off 2 fingers in the shop in August and am now recovering from a total right shoulder replacement the first week of this month so things have really slowed way down here. That 3 gallon bottle of mead and five gallons of muscadine bubbling away next to my recliner is starting to look really good.

All in all it’s been a year of plenty here. I can hardly wait for spring!

Sid

Rusty
Reply

Sid,

Wow, that sounds like an exciting year, to say the least. But slow down and be careful! You don’t want to lose any more parts or you won’t be able to keep bees.

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