Popular Science Monthly/Volume 43/August 1893/Honey and Honey Plants


By Dr. G. G. GROFF.

THE popular idea is that all flowers alike produce honey, and that bees pass from blossom to blossom indiscriminately collecting the sweet fluid. This, however, like many other popular notions, is incorrect. By no means all flowers yield honey, and most of them yield it very scantily. Indeed, those plants visited by honeybees which yield any considerable amount above that consumed by the bees from day to day are, in any one section of the country, limited to a very small number, and usually not more than one, or at most two, of these plants are in blossom at one time. There are, however, a good many flowers that yield some honey, yet are for various reasons not visited by honeybees, among which we may name the honeysuckle (visited, however, sometimes for the pollen), and plants of the buttercup family. In some cases the honeybees can not reach the honey, in others it is probably not palatable to them.

It is also true that there is a great difference in the amount of honey produced in different years by the same species of plants. Sometimes there seems to be almost no honey at all in white clover, one of the best honey plants in our Northern States, while at other times honey is in the blossoms for a few days, and then it suddenly disappears, or in other seasons there is honey so long as blossoms of clover are to be found. The secretion of honey does not depend upon the season being moist, for usually the honey "flow" is greatest in dry seasons. There does seem to be some connection between the amount of honey produced and the character of the soil upon which the plants grow. Thus clover growing on clayey ground seems to yield more honey than that growing on hillsides where there is but little clay. The same is true of other plants. Often there is honey in one district and none in another not far distant.

The plants which yield "surplus" honey in the North Atlantic States in ordinary seasons are the red and black raspberries, the white clover, the basswood, and the buckwheat. Some other plants may yield small additional quantities, but are hardly of practical importance. There are, however, some early spring flowers giving honey which is useful in stimulating brood-rearing in the hives, without which there is no hope of any surplus. We will first name some of these plants.

The practical bee-keeper knows that his hopes of obtaining honey all depend upon his having his hives full of bees when the "flow" comes. Brood is produced in quantity only when some honey can be obtained from flowers then in bloom. Hence the importance to the apiarist of the early blooming flowers.

The willows of several species, and the silver and red maples, blossom in March and April, depending upon the season. They yield both honey and pollen, and whenever the days are warm enough the bees constantly visit them. If one is about his apiary on warm days in March and April, he will notice the bees coming in with pollen even at times when no flowers have been observed. At such times they doubtless have found blossoms on some warm bank and are making good use of them. The poplar trees also bloom in April, a little later than the willows. Reference is here had to the true aspen poplars, not the tulip poplar. The dandelion and strawberry blossoms are much visited by bees. Later, about the first of May, we have the sugar maple and the blossoms of the fruit trees—the peach, cherry, plum, apple, pear, quince, etc. These all yield honey and pollen. During some warm and early springs, in very strong colonies, honey may possibly be stored which has been gathered from the fruit blossoms, but, as our seasons average, the honey from our fruit trees goes altogether to stimulate brood-rearing. The locust trees (both the honey and the black locust) blossom after the fruit trees and before the white clover. Surplus is seldom stored from these blossoms, though they are good honey producers. Their honey goes to produce more brood or to feed the colony until the clover comes. We next consider plants which produce surplus honey. These for the Atlantic States are few in number.

Of the plants which produce surplus honey the white clover is first named. This plant grows spontaneously throughout the whole region. In the well-cultivated sections it is almost the only honey-producing plant left on which the apiarist can any longer depend. It begins to blossom in June and continues on into July. The honey from this plant is the whitest and finest produced. It is entirely free from any peculiar or offensive taste or odor, and is a general favorite.

In the more northern States the red raspberry commences to blossom a little later than the white clover. This is a valuable honey plant of which bee-keepers in the South are deprived. This honey is considered by many to be fully equal to that of the white clover. In July the basswood blossoms. This tree yields a great amount of honey, but unfortunately there are no longer many trees to furnish blossoms and nectar. This honey is darker than that from clover, and has also a peculiar odor, which is unpleasant to many persons.

The last plant of value as a honey producer is buckwheat, which begins to blossom in August and continues until frost. The honey from buckwheat is dark and has a taste of its own which is not offensive. This honey is very rich, and a taste for it is speedily acquired. The cultivation of this plant is becoming, year by year, more restricted, and is now confined to the newer and more mountainous sections.

Those regions where the land is all under cultivation have only the white clover to depend upon for honey, unless there are a few basswood trees along the streams, while in the mountainous areas will be found clover, basswood, raspberries, and buckwheat It takes but a moment, then, to decide where one could best hope to succeed in bee-keeping.

We place among the plants which produce a small or variable amount of honey the mint and figwort families; also the asters and golden rods. Of the first family, the mints, we have the hore-hound, the sage, bergamot, the catnip, and the motherwort, all producing considerable honey. Of this group, the most remarkable is the motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca), which is constantly visited by bees while it is in blossom. The supply of honey is limited only by the number of plants, which at present in most places is small. It has been suggested that this plant be cultivated for the honey it yields. It is now a rather unsightly weed. The figwort (Scrophularia nodosa) is an excellent honey plant. It has a square stem, and exteriorly a good deal resembles the mints. It is a worthless weed except for its honey-producing flowers. It is not very abundant. The wild mustard, the teasel, the boneset, the wild sunflowers, the Spanish needles, and the snapdragons, as also the smartweeds, produce some honey, though in most places the total is of little value. In Michigan, Prof. A. J. Cooke holds the golden-rods in high esteem as honey producers. In Pennsylvania the writer can not find that they are of any value at all. On newly cleared land the sumac springs up, and it is held by some to be a valuable source of honey, and that considerable amounts are some years collected from it.

The tulip poplar, popularly called "poplar," also produces honey in its beautiful large blossoms, but the tree is too scarce to be of much value to the bee-keeper. The blossoms of the blackberry, like their near relatives, the raspberries, are honey producers. The milkweeds are also secreters of honey. Curiously, the pollen of these plants often sticks to the heads of the bees and disables them so much that they perish. Prof. A. J. Cooke says that at times the blossoms of the Indian corn yield both honey and pollen to the bees, but we think to no great extent. We have never observed the bees working on these blossoms.

The laurel (Kalmia) yields honey which is poisonous. Generally the bees do not work on these blossoms, but in some localities they do, and we frequently read of persons poisoned by honey which probably comes from this plant. It is thought that the poisoning of the Greek soldiers under Xenophon was by honey from this family of plants in this case from rhododendrons.

The plant lice (aphides) which infest many plants secrete a sweetish fluid of which bees, ants, and other insects are very fond. In seasons when real nectar is scarce or altogether lacking, bees will collect and store this material, which is generally known as honeydew or manna. There is, however, another variety of honeydew which seems to be secreted by the leaves of plants and is gathered by the bees. This material is hardly fit for human food, nor is it for bees either, and it is doubtless a principal cause of winter loss of colonies, for it produces in the bees a diarrhœa from which they perish if the winter is one of continuous cold, so that they can not take an occasional cleansing flight. Cider, juices of grapes, and all other sweet fluids are collected and stored by bees in seasons of scarcity. The general bad effects of all these are the same as of the honeydew—they produce intestinal disorders of which the bees die.

The profitable cultivation of plants, otherwise useless, for honey alone has never yet been demonstrated, and the low price of sugar will probably preclude any such efforts in the near future. Honey will remain a luxury, and as such will be produced in favorable locations—that is, on poor soil, where the honey plants grow naturally, and where the land can be utilized for nothing else. However, in the planting of shade trees it would be well to plant those which will produce honey as well as shade.

The effort is made by practical bee-keepers to find some plant, like the buckwheat, which may make a useful farm crop and at the same time produce honey. Many think alsike clover will do this. Prof. Cooke thus speaks of it: "Alsike or Swedish clover (Trifolium hybridum) seems to resemble both the red and the white clover. It is a stronger grower than the white, and has a whitish blossom tinged with pink. This forms excellent pasture and hay for cattle, sheep, etc., and may well be sown by the apiarist. It will often pay apiarists to furnish neighbor farmers with seed as an inducement to grow this par excellent honey plant. Like white clover, it blooms all through June into July. It should be sown early in spring with timothy, five or six pounds to the acre, in the same manner that clover is sown."