There is constant debate as to when the beekeeping year begins and when it ends. Some say that it starts after the honey harvest when you are preparing your bees for the cooler months ahead, but I find that terribly pessimistic, as we harvest the main crop of honey in August.
Others tend to think of early April when the bees appear to be coming out of their torpor and start to work again. I agree with the latter, in a way, except that the process is already in progress. Any pollen brought into the hive will stimulate the queen to lay, at least a little, and on any day that is warmer than acknowledged as seasonal, some of their number will venture forth for a comfort break, and to see what food is available. The Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland have just declared that, an unprecedented, 368 species were in flower during the four day period of their annual survey at the beginning of January, but there aren’t very many blooms in total, just a few each of a lot of species. Imagine a hedge full of blackberry blossom, a huge lime tree in full bloom, a field full of dandelions, or an orchard full of apple trees in blossom. You don’t see anything like that in February. So, the bees go out looking, and come back with empty honey crops, having expended a lot of energy. What do they do? They rush to the pantry and grab a snack. To be sure that they have enough food, we place a patty of fondant immediately above the cluster, and replace it, if used. This is a really good reason to plant reliable early pollen producers such as hazel, snowdrops (which you can plant up to the end of March - Ed.) and some of the winter flowering heathers.
The biggest threat to honeybees is the varroa mite which hopped species from the Asian honeybee apis cerana, which is bigger than our native honeybee apis mellifera and more able to tolerate it. This mite, the size of a pin head, sucks the haemolymph (blood) of the bee, depleting its health, but also passes back a series of viruses, which further weaken the bee. Eventually the bee dies, but the mite lives on. Female varroa mites lay their eggs into the incubating cells of honeycomb, and the hatching varroa mites attach themselves to the young bee larvae. When the bee hatches it is already host to as many as five mites. These breed and new eggs are laid into new bee brood cells and the cycle continues.
Treating for varroa is complicated because most chemicals available for such treatment are actually insecticides… and bees are insects. This was further complicated in 2014 by the Veterinary Medicines Directorate clamping down on treatments allowable for use in beehives. There are now only six licensed for use in the UK, and they are all only for use against varroa mites. For all other bee diseases there is no longer a single treatment available anymore
Here is how ridiculous it is getting. One of the most effective treatments for varroa is oxalic acid, and although it is not licensed in the UK, it is freely available in other parts of Europe. The legal route for obtaining this treatment in the UK is tortuous. It can be obtained, by prescription, from a veterinary surgeon with an import licence. Beekeepers have to obtain a prescription, and receive training, in order to administer oxalic acid to their bees. What is oxalic acid? Concentrated rhubarb juice – I kid you not.
In December we decided to take a trip over the channel, just before Christmas, and do some timely purchasing of wine, and seasonal comestibles. The French have a different slant on the festive season and don’t involve themselves in the frenetic charge to the shops and the mad internet race to get ‘stuff’ delivered four weeks ahead of the one ‘festive’ day. On Saturday December 20th, the roads, shops and markets of Brittany were functioning like any other Saturday in the year. If anything the roads were quieter than usual.
What has all this to do with bees? Well! We landed at St. Malo, one of the two French ports used by Brittany Ferries and went to two street markets within 15 miles: one in Paramé and the other in Dinan. At both markets I chatted to local beekeepers selling honey, pollen, royal jelly, various lozenges and beeswax products. I noticed that their prices were higher than in previous years and were now very much closer to British prices. When we got onto the subject of how good a season the summer of 2014 had been, their faces dropped. It seems that they had the same good weather that we enjoyed here in the UK, but they had suffered terribly at the hands of ‘le frelon’ (the hornet). Beekeepers have been told, for two or three years now, that the Asian Hornet is just waiting to cross the channel, and although I heard it as well as anybody, it didn't really hit home until I got into conversation with these French beekeepers. It was just one shipment of garden pots from China to the Bordeaux region of France in 2004 that brought the Asian hornet (Vespa velutina nigrithorax) to Europe.
It is now present in, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, Italy and the entirety of France. It really will not take much for it to hop onto one of the twenty, or so, ferries that come over from France every single day of the year. Don’t confuse this insect with the Giant Asian hornet (Vespa mandarinia), which Google Images and a lot of publications show.
Beekeeping in France is different, in many ways, from British beekeeping. Most obviously, France is much, much bigger, but with a similar population, meaning that the available forage tends to be sparser and most beekeepers only have one harvest each year, unless involved in migratory beekeeping to areas like chestnut plantations, which some do. However, the annual harvest per hive is generally lower than the UK. When I mentioned harvests of 36kg (80 lbs) per hive this year, my French beekeeping friends are ‘gob claquer’ (gob smacked). Although they had similar weather to us last season, less available forage may well have made colonies more susceptible to predation from hornets. That is my (pure) speculation.
European hornets will pick off the odd bee, now and again, and wasps can pose a threat to a colony of bees, but Asian hornets form very large colonies in distinctive round nests, hunt in packs, and seem to favour concentrations of food, such as beehives, being able to polish off a hive in a few hours.
Regardless of the reasons and rationale, be prepared, because I am convinced that ‘le frelon viendra’ (the hornet will come). It’s just a matter of when.