Posted by Deano Martin over 8 years ago
Whenever I have come across references to zoning in relation to honeybees, it is invariably used to decide where hives should be placed. As a beekeeper and a Permaculturalist, it is also a handy tool to help to decide where to plant different bee forage crops.
Sitting here on a wet, cold, English February day, it is easy to appreciate the problems that honeybees in Cool Temperate climates face. My bees have already taken advantage of a short spell of warm, sunny weather, to take their cleansing flights, and are already likely to be hatching the first batches of new workers. By now, not only are they likely to be running low on supplies (honey), but the increased activity, and the need to maintain a higher temperature for brood rearing, will rapidly use up that supply. With cold, rain, and wind, all reducing their ability to fly, and with little forage available, this part of the year is a critical time for the hives. Later in the year, not only will there be better weather to fly in, but there will be more forage available, and more foragers to fly out and gather it.
With bees able to forage more than a mile away from the hives with suitable flying conditions, very few people can control all of the forage for their own bees, and their own properties, depending on size, will only be capable of supplying a small amount of the forage that their bees will need, making it even more important to use that space to it's best advantage. To help me to do this I use Zoning.
My own (very rough) version of zoning for bees is as follows:
Zone 0 The individual hive
Zone 1 The Apiary
Zone2 My own property
Zone 3 My near neighbours
Zone 4 Everything else within a mile of my hives.
Now you can change this to suit yourself. with 3.75 acres (1.5 hectares), I have quite a bit of space. People with larger, or smaller properties, can use a slightly different system.
Zone 1 The Apiary
I don't plant any forage crops in the apiary. Planting here is restricted to shelter (windbreak and Summer shade), and low maintenance groundcover. I avoid forage plants as the bees are likely to empty (poop) fairly close to the hive, especially very early in the season, and I prefer not to mix food with poop, and guess that the bees do too. Plants for shelter could be evergreen, or plants that retain their leaves in Winter. Plants for Summer shade should lose their leaves in Winter. if you treat the hives like you would your own home, you won't go far wrong.
Zone 2 My Property
As I alluded to earlier in the article, flying conditions are bad at the beginning and end of the season, but at the end of the season, the hive is strong, and hopefully has plenty of food put by. Just like us. So I concentrate on early season forage in Zone 2. Individual species will depend on other factors like climate, soil type, etc. so I'll leave it up to you to do the research. If you have a smaller property, or when conditions are good for flying early in the season, then your bees will be foraging wider afield, so increasing the availability of early season forage in the neighbourhood will reap rewards. See below for ideas.
Zone 3 My Neighbours
As the season starts to move along, and flying conditions improve, my bees are going to be foraging over a wider area, and outside of the area that I can control, so I have to be more creative with my thinking, and see what forage there is around me. Again this is site specific. I live on the edge of a small village, surrounded by farmland, which is predominately arable. As we get into April and May, we are surrounded by oilseed rape (canola), and field beans. The OSR has such a high concentration of nectar, that the honeybees will work it virtually to the exclusion of all the other available forage. This means that, in theory, planting anything else at home, or locally would be a waste of time. In practise, for the last two years, the weather has been so dry whilst the OSR has been in flower, that the nectar flow has stopped, and the bees have looked for other sources of forage, with trees being the main beneficiary. I'm guessing that with their deeper roots, and mycorrhizal fungi, the trees are able to access water that the field crops cannot. This is a good example of 'every function should be provided by more than one element'. Therefore I do propagate some April/May flowering plants, and put them into my own space (Zone 2), but I also give these plants to my near neighbours. This does really hit more of the Permaculture Principles 'Buttons'. People Care, Redistribution of Surplus, as well as being an example of zoning, for bees.
Zone 4 The Wider Landscape
By mid Summer. the bees are able to forage much wider afield, and here, all of the field crops that produce nectar, are over. This actually leads to a shortage of forage here, and there is a noticeable increase in the number of bees attempting to rob other hives. So ways to increase forage at this time of year are also important, as a hive that has had it's honey robbed by other bees, is not likely to be able to put enough away to survive the Winter.
It may seem that you have little influence over bee forage further from your own property, but there are a number of ways that you can help. First of all, I offer Summer flowering trees and shrubs to anyone locally who will take them. Secondly, I support my local community by planting trees around the parish, at my own expense. The fact that these are all Summer flowering trees helps my bees, and creates lots of goodwill too. In more urban areas, this bee orientated, guerilla gardening, may have to concentrate on annual plants, but the principle is the same. (Most urban areas also have a much greater variety of Summer flowering plants than rural areas do).
I do plant Mid Summer plants on my own property, not only because we have the space, but also because I like the flowers, and many of the plants provide more than one function. An example of that for me would be Musk Mallow. It's zone for bees, using my method, would be zone 4, but as it has edible leaves, for humans it could be anywhere from zone 1 as a salad plant, through zones 2 and 3 as a hardy perennial able to live in grass, as far as zone 5 as a wild flower.
By far the most useful book that I have found on bee forage plants is 'Bee Plants' by Martin Crawford, of the Agroforestry Research Trust. It has no pretty pictures, but the tabular/database format, is excellent. I also include details of useful bee forage plants for the UK, in posts on my own blog 'The Sustainable Smallholding'.
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