I am a huge advocate of planning trees ahead of time, especially if they are to be established where turf dominates. By laying down a biodegradable barrier like cardboard and covering it with mulch, the turf is smothered while the mulch encourages the fungal dominated soil in which woody-stemmed plants thrive.
In regard to honeybees, the small volume of garden plantings of flowers sadly do little in the way of nourishing the hive. After all, a single bee visits 50-1oo flowers per day, and 2,000,000 flowers to produce 1 pound of honey of which 100 pounds are produced per healthy hive in a good year. Bee-attracting flowers still feed smaller native bee populations and lure bees to your valuable crops so there is still great value in a pollinator garden!
Trees on the other hand, are a different story. And would you expect anything else from me? With my passionate love of trees, I plan to use them instead of (well, in combination with) pasture to feed humans, animals and insects alike. Honeybees focus their foraging efforts on areas with a high density of blooms as evolutionary biology encourages as efficient behavior as possible. So blooming trees are an ideal nectar source.
The trait of cyclical production of trees that affects fruit yields holds true for nectar yields as well. Where fruit trees see bumper crops followed by small yields the next year(s), trees follow a cycle of 2-8 years between massive nectar flows. So like always, diversity is key. This resource produced by NASA is great for determining what is blooming in your region.
Take the basswood for example. A single Tilia americana tree can produce huge surpluses of top quality honey during a 2 week bloom in June or July. I’ve seen numbers of 20 gallons per mature tree, or 800-1,100 pound per acre of planting.
The next tree to consider is one I have fond memories of from college Dendrology class. The class was once per week for 4 hours outside in ANY weather. Finals week of the fall semester in the mountains of southwest Virginia is when the whether turns from crisp calm autumn to blustery cold winter. As it happened, our outdoor dendrology final was in the midst of a brutally cold freezing rain storm. People cried, hands were numb, scared mumblings of frostbite were uttered but only when the “Rain-proof” paper started dissolving did the teaching staff take action. The next tree was to be the last!
One of the useful traits for identifying plants is taste. Obviously with Toxicodendron radicans being one of our subjects, a compromise was made where we were allowed to ask the teachers if a leaf from the quiz subject was safe to taste. Carefully tiptoeing the line between an B+ and an A- in the class, the last quiz tree of the final exam was critical. And I was stumped.
Most of the other stumped students just wrote Black gum, which was our default for generic looking tree, in haste to return to the warmth and dryness of their vehicles. After milling around trying to control the nerves and adrenaline leaving me as the last remaining student, I finally asked the instructor if I it was safe taste the long, ovate brilliantly red leaf. With a smile that revealed the answer, I wrote Ericaceae Oxydendrum arboreum Sourwood to secure an A- for the semester.
Once I started researching sourwoods, I found that they are quite beautiful when flowering and as I already knew, a brilliant red in the fall as this image from Oregon State university demonstrates:
Better yet, they are shade tolerant which will be an important attribute in my design. Even their slow growth rate is advantageous.
Sumacs are another tree that requires consideration for both honeybees and the native pollinators. For both types of pollinators, the three months of bloom supplies ample pollen and nectar. Here is a study that recorded bee activity on staghorn sumac stands in canada. It found that bees worked the male flowers for pollen in the morning and female flowers for nectar in the evening. For the native bees, the soft pithy stems of Rhus trees/shrubs provide nesting sites as the wood is easily bored. With aesthetics in mind, sumacs also turn a brilliant red in the fall.
Tulip poplars produce so much nectar that it stains concrete walkways beneath urban plantings. The beautiful cup shaped flowers of the Liriodendron tulipifera give bees a nice platform to land and drink from as they resemble tulips, hence the common name. It blooms early so it helps feed colonies and pollinators as they build up their nests and populations in the spring.
Black locust are already all over my pasture and the surrounding woods. In fact the time that my bees lost interest in the provided feeder coincided with the locust bloom. No additional considerations will be made for locust plantings as they are already numerous on the farm. I also let most locust trees grow because they fix nitrogen into the soil as they are a leguminous tree and they provide wood that is incredibly hard and rot resistant. On my land at least, the black locusts commonly lose limbs and break apart negating the need and labor required to fell them. Out of the local natives, locust wood makes the best fence posts and firewood.
I’ll expand on these trees and my plans for them in the near future!