There’s an autumnal feel today, isn’t there? The prophets of doom will be the first to say it, and indeed, they have already started. What an excellent summer we have had though. It wasn’t as hot as last year and it certainly wasn’t as wet as 2012. It was a real summer with all the necessary ingredients: some rain and lots of sun. Our plum tree bent under the weight of its fruit and the majority of bee species have benefited too – and not before time. We have had a record crop of honey, making up for the poor crops in 2012 and 2013. In fact, we have five times the amount of honey that we got last year and the year before. Why? It wasn’t that incredible weather wise. The truth is that it doesn’t have to be. A fair amount of sun and a fair drop of the wet stuff and you have ideal conditions to produce good nectar flows and that is what the bees want. Although most flowers have stopped producing nectar now, there are two that are still on song. One is controversial, as it is an invasive species. In this neck of the woods, the banks of ditches and streams are lined with Himalayan Balsam. English Nature hate it, and pull it up by the roots on all their nature reserves, but the bees love it and it is always apparent when they have visited it because as they return to the hive with their backs coated in white dust they look like ghost bees. This is caused by the pollen of the Himalayan balsam which rubs off the stamens as they enter and exit the flowers.
I explained last month how wasps crave sweet substances at this time of year. Well…! they are not alone. This photograph is of just one fallen plum adjacent to one of my hives, and yes, those are bees with the flies on the plum. After the honey has been taken away from honeybees, they have only small reserves of food in the hive, and if the weather is cold or wet, they could easily starve, so as soon as we take the honey away, we feed the bees to build up their stores again. Don’t forget, the honey was to have been the food that would see them through the winter. We give them a solution of straightforward white granulated sugar, which is primarily a sugar called sucrose. The nectar that the bees collect is also primarily sucrose. They add enzymes to the nectar, or sugar, and convert it to glucose and fructose, which are also sugars but more easily digestible for the bees. Ultimately, then, we don’t deprive the bees of their food. We take away food which has been flavoured by the pollens of the flowers that they have visited, and replace it with unflavoured food. There is plenty of pollen in the hive, because bees collect that too, and most beekeepers don’t take that away.
It’s an old tradition, here in Somerset, to wring the last possible honey crop out of the bees and this is done by taking the bees to moors covered with heather. Our only real option is Exmoor. By the time the heather is producing, there is precious little other forage for the bees and so it’s comforting to think that they enjoy the trip. We shut the bees up the night before setting off and the alarm went off way, way too early at 5.50am. By 7.15am, my bees were in the car and we set off.
By the time we had travelled about 10 miles, I was aware of about 20 bees in the back window. Had an entrance block come loose? We went on a bit further and the number increased. By the time we had travelled 20 miles, there were about 50 bees desperately trying to get out of the back of the car. After some discussion we decided that as the number had not dramatically increased, it wasn’t a case of a loose entrance. If it had been, the car would have been filled with bees. It was assumed that some of my bees (why mine?) had spent the night under the mesh floor and the vibration and warmth had brought them out. If we stopped and opened the door, they would be lost forever, so we drove on. The traffic entering Taunton was horrendous and although the number of bees in the back window had not increased lately, the occupant of a car right behind us was taking considerable interest in the rear of our car. By this point, the bees had started a community song. ‘Oh, what a wonderful thing to be, a healthy grown up busy, busy bee………………….’
A few moments later and only a few feet further on, a BMW pulled up beside us, the driver gesticulating violently. My wife rolled down her window and the driver of the BMW, now frantic, shouted ‘Your back window’s full of wasps’. We thanked him kindly, but did nothing else. He must have thought us to be deranged, driving around with wasps in the back of the car, and all the windows closed. The bees were no trouble at all. When we arrived at the designated site, shown to us by the farmer whose land we were allowed to be on, we were presented with a magnificent view over the Bristol Channel one way, but a glorious and rewarding view of swathes of purple heather covering square mile upon square mile of moorland in the other. At first we were slightly concerned that the heather seemed a bit distant, but we needn’t have worried. On the next visit, because the weather had been a little cold, and to ensure that the bees had enough stores, we were met by the unmistakable aroma of heather as we opened the hives.
We have yet to go back and collect the bees, but this will be in the near future, as the heather season is short. I am really looking forward to harvesting the thick gelatinous crop of honey that smells and tastes so different from our general flower honey that we get here in the heart of Somerset, but, from the west end of Exmoor, it will be Devon honey.
The heather that abounds on moors is also known as Ling (Calluna vulgaris) and is a single species. There are no variants. The other heather on the moors grows only in small areas and is known as bell heather (Erica cinerea), and is the originator of the vast majority of heathers that we now grow in our gardens. It does produce a honey, but not in such huge quantities because it isn’t so prolific in the wild.