In one way at least, beekeeping has to be one of the most pessimistic crafts in Christendom. We are already looking at the end of the beekeeping season and most beekeepers are taking honey from the hives around now. Sometimes there is a spring harvest around the end of May when crops like oilseed rape have finished flowering, but for others the main, and only, crop is harvested at the end of July or the beginning of August, and although at first glance that may seem pessimistic, as I mentioned just now, it is rather a confirmation of a successful and ongoing summer.
Firstly you have to ask ‘what gives us honey?’ and the answer is, of course, very simple - flowers. That being the case, flowers have to bloom and produce nectar and pollen: whether we consider them as just flowers, or blossom, is irrelevant, because their ultimate aim is to produce seeds. Those seeds can be bound up in what we term fruit, or just as seed pods. Those definitions are made more difficult by human usage, as we eat soft fruit, but we also eat seeds in pods. We primarily seem to use the term seeds for the ones that we don’t eat. Hence a broad bean, which is nothing more than a seed in a pod, is considered a fruit, or, wrongly, a vegetable, whereas the seeds of a lupin, which are of no use as food, are never considered to be more than plain seeds.
Back to the point. All plants, shrubs and trees have to procreate, and whereas some do it through their root systems, like elm trees, most rely on seeds. For the most part seeds are produced at the end of the warmer part of the year, or harvest time, and consequently flowers have to bloom as early as possible in the growing season. This is why most wild flowers have finished flowering by the end of May. Pollinating insects are then attracted to the blooms so that they can unwittingly transport the precious cargo of pollen to another plant of the same species. This is, of course, when honeybees are at the zenith of their population increase. The Spring flowers get pollinated and can then spend the rest of the summer producing their fruit (seeds), before shutting down for the winter.
As a result of this lull in flower production during June, the month is considered a bit of a desert for beekeepers, but in July things change and a new batch of wild blooms come into flower, but not in such large quantities as the spring rush. At this point in the year gardeners play a large part in helping pollinating insects and beekeepers alike. What is a summer garden without flowers? Certain garden plants, which have been bred, or introduced, to fill the gap in our gardens at that time, or simply to feed us, start to bloom, which is why bees kept close to human habitation stand a better chance of producing a consistent crop of honey. Food crops like broad beans, raspberries and runner beans all attract bees, and many other domestic plants produce flowers that are attractive to bees during the summer months when resources available in the wild have all but dried up. Echinops, golden rod, buddlejia, verbena bonariensis, marjoram, oregano, verbascum, rudbeckia, lavender (augustifolia) and sedums can all play their part, but top of the bees’ preferences are helenium autumnale, also known as sneeze weed and hyssop. In our household we are such anoraks that we plant a swathe of Borage just for the bees. Honeysuckle will attract bumble bees in their droves, but not honeybees. Bee species are primarily attracted to different flowers by accessibility. As some have longer proboscises than others, they are able to gain access to different flower types. Bumble bees can access honeysuckle, but honeybees are unable to do so because of the depth of the florets. None of these plants will replace the abundance of spring flowers that are produced in the wild each year. Just consider a field of dandelions, a hedgerow of blackthorn, or a huge lime tree in bloom. These are vast resources in the lives of pollinating insects.
There is one other crop that is not domesticated and is the bane of gardeners which produces an abundance of nectar and pollen late in the season - brambles (Rubus fruticosus). If you look brambles up in your wildflower book you will discover that it is not simply a single species, but there are innumerable hybrids of this plant, so much so that the flowering period is extended further by diversity of type. Bees and pollinating insects of all types just love brambles as they provide a source of sugar-rich nectar over an extended period, and they also have pollen which will feed the next generation of bees.
Once the insects have plundered the nectar and pollinated the blooms, ensuring that they themselves are fed and the next generation is catered for, the plants can get on with the same process, and so the beekeeping year comes to a natural end, but just as the wheel keeps turning for plants, so it does for bees. Another year starts immediately the one before ends.