The willows may be weeping, but if they are near to your hives your bees will be laughing all the way to the dinner table.
Willow is one of the most important early spring sources of protein-packed pollen. It is a dioecious species, meaning that each individual plant will bear either male or female flowers, but not both. Pollen is only produced by the male flowers.
Workers are stimulated to go out in search of pollen through the action of a pheromone emitted by open brood. It’s a virtuous circle. With the winter-stored pollen quickly getting used up to produce brood food for the first of the year’s hatched larvae, the promotion of foraging behaviour amongst workers brings in fresh stocks, which in turn stimulate the queen to accelerate her laying.
As an insect-pollinated plant, willow needs honeybees and other pollinators to visit both the male and female catkins. That means there’s a meal of carbohydrate rich nectar available from all of the flowers.
Come March, winter honey stores will be critically low, so this early nectar source can be a life saver for honey bees. As in the case of pollen, incoming nectar will accelerate the queen’s laying rate, so producing an urgently needed new generation of nurse bees.
Willows produce a generous amount of sap, a real draw for plant-sucking aphids. The high sucrose content of the sap is partly synthesised by the aphids into complex sugars or oligosaccharides, then excreted in the form of ‘honeydew’. Bees will collect this, process it and store it as honeydew honey.
In its precise definition of ‘honey’, the Honey (Scotland) Regulations 2015 begins by telling us that it is “the natural sweet substance produced by Apis mellifera bees from the nectar of plants or from secretions of living parts of plants or excretions of plant-sucking insects…..” Yum, yum!
Willows, sometimes called Sallows, belong to the Genus Salix. The bark and leaves contain a substance called salicin. If consumed, this is converted into salicylic acid, which has a medicinal effect. Potions prepared from willow have been used by humans throughout history for easing aches and pains.
In 1897, a scientist working for the German chemical company Bayer AG produced a synthetic version of the active ingredient in willow, in the form of acetylsalicylic acid, still marketed by Bayer today as Asprin.
Bayer also produces the neonicotinoid pesticides Imidacloprid and Thiacloprid.