A Year Full of Blooms
Managing your Land to Support Bees
By: Matt Fuller Ph.D.
My family has been involved in farming and ranching since “the old days” when ancestors loaded on a boat and made the trip to Indianola, ready to make the inland journey across black land prairies and coastal post oak savannahs to start a new life in Southeast Texas. The Texas of their time was idyllic for beekeeping and still is. Abundant fields of flowers, forests, grasses, mild winters, and strong economic and agricultural policies make for a beekeeper’s paradise.
Like beekeeping, Texas has undergone several changes since those “old days.” The sheer growth of our cities and suburbs has caused many issues for the state.
As a young boy I remember flocks of geese in Katy and Eagle Lake, rivers and creeks that never ran dry, fields of bluebonnets as far as the eye could see, and almost every boy in my hometown knew where at least one bee tree was. Our state’s growth is not all problematic. I do enjoy many of the creature comforts urbanization has afforded us. But, it has presented farmers and cattle ranchers with challenging prospects in finding hay, feed, markets, and with rising land prices and taxes, and scarcity of water and other resources.
The same challenges are facing bees and beekeepers. Since we added bees to our family farms, we began implementing a number of practices that may be useful to beekeepers no matter the size of the operation. Many urban and suburban cities, county governments, and schools; along with residential developments are now measured in feet, not acres.
Thankfully most are planting bee friendly flower mixes that help control erosion as well as native and non-native pollinators. These actions are in place now because of citizens who saw an innovative way to help with a problem and offered a solution.
Those with enough land to keep bees, have enough land to consider managing it for bee forage.
"Personally, bees have changed the way I view the responsibility I take with the small pieces of land entrusted to me."
Balance with Nature ~
Before bees, herbicides were my friend. Aggressive, frequent mowing and tilling was the solution to battling yaupon, mesquite, huisache, and wild Texas rose.
Now, I practice regular seeding of native grasses and controlled burning to clear lands for new growth; leaving flowers in the field long enough to benefit the bees and thwart my obsessive compulsion to gaze upon a freshly shredded field of grass. In a family that grew up baling hay and ranching cattle, you can imagine the looks I get when I steer my tractor and brush hog around a clump of horsemint, or delay mowing altogether until after wild verbena or Mexican Blankets have finished blooming. I once loathed yaupon, poison ivy, and Johnson Grass until one fateful weekend a few years ago when cruising my property I saw bees working each of those species - the yaupon and poison ivy flowers for nectar and pollen, and Johnson Grass for resins to make propolis!
We’ve found great success with a system I call “year-round blooms.” This process takes time and requires you to know your property and your soil. It requires you to slow down and make detailed observations and make clear connections between bees, seasons, land, water, and weather. Famed Texas author John Graves reminds us that we don’t really own land - the land owns us! To create the aforementioned “balance with nature;" the challenge is to learn the “environments of YOUR property.” Identifying where a small gully holds water just a little longer therefore might be a great place for may-haws or persimmons. Which areas around your house have full, scorching sun in the summer, but mild winters that could save a potted plant? What plants do you see bees foraging on at specific times throughout a normal year?
Until you’ve put your hands, blood, sweat, and tears into the ground—can you say you know a property. Then and only then can you design a plan - whether it’s for cows, hay, pecans, cotton, hunting, or bees!
Once you know a stretch of land, you can cultivate it to favor bees. Certainly, you can buy expensive seed mixtures from Texas nurseries. I confess I have done so more times than I care to admit in order to have a gorgeous bluebonnet field I remember as a child. If planned and executed properly, and just enough rain falls, the seeds can pay for themselves by reducing the beekeeper’s dependence on supplemental feeding and possibly colony loss due to lack of forage.
Native seed mixes are a great choice for bees and have added benefits of a large root system to control erosion and evaporation; all the while crowding out undesirable plants. You can also let Mother Nature take control and reseed areas for you.
Leave a small corner of your property wild (un-mowed)and you just might be surprised at the bee traffic you gain! Even simple efforts like leaving an elm tree or broom weed bush when you’d otherwise remove it might help a colony of bees (managed or native.) Knowing your main nectar source and educating your neighbors about them is sure to help.
Learn the seasonal cycles of your property so you can identify what’s blooming and when – to the point that at any given time you could go to a specific location on your property and find bees foraging on what you’ve cultivated or preserved - leading to a healthy environment for honey bees and humans alike!
The bee-conscious farmer, rancher or homeowner also has tremendous resource in the TAMU Palynology Lab run by Dr. Vaughn Bryant. Every so often I drop a sample of honey and a check in the mail.
A few weeks later his kind graduate students drop a report in the mail back to me! I open this report like a kid opens presents on Christmas. It tells me the main sources of pollen on which my bees forage. I keep this data in mind as I plan out routine chores and upgrades to my property; passing over (or pruning lightly) a tree I might otherwise cut down or leave a stand of wildflowers for a few weeks longer than my mowing-obsessed neighbors might like. I of course have a sign saying, “Pardon the weeds, I’m feeding the bees!” (Not overlooking the shared bottle of honey with my neighbors as a peace offering
Chinese tallow, yaupon, goldenrod, and clover are major sources of nectar and should be included in any plan for your property if they work in your area. Other sources of nectar for bees are supplejack, horsemint, mesquite, cactus flowers, wild asters, and many others.
Those with gardens can plant a year’s worth of food for themselves as well as for the bees. My pollen lab report told me that the majority of pollen in my honey actually came from elm and oak trees; followed by traces of vegetable and flower pollen from my garden and wildflowers. Tip: Honey consumers also enjoy seeing the report!
A great resource to help plan a year’s worth of blooms is NASA’s Honey Bee Forage Map
Anyone looking to design a plan for year round blooms should start here. After clicking your approximate location on a map, a list of plants that provide important forage for bees in each month of the year is produced. Next, a cruise of your property is in order - this is a concept borrowed from the forestry industry. With notebook in hand, walk or ride your property looking for various species of plants you want to retain. I use the iNatrualist App to document all of the flowers I see bees on. This has the added benefit of automatically noting for me when flowers are in bloom and allowing neighbors to also document what bees might be foraging on their property or give advice on what they believe a species of flower might be.
Just as good record keeping is a part of effective beekeeping, records on forage sources are also important.
Those looking to develop a year’s worth of blooms for the bees will find a rewarding endeavor waiting for them. In much the same way that farming, and ranching gets into your soul, so does beekeeping. This principle applies not only to a land owner, but also the suburban homeowner, apartment dweller, and the rural cattle rancher. Each of us can do a little something to ensure flowers are available for bees year round.
Leveraging your land’s resources to support your goals does not have to exclude resources that help bees. In fact, for us, helping bees has taken a thorny, dry, brown patch of dusty earth and made it just a bit softer, wetter, sweeter smelling, and greener