Honey bee on a raspberry flower
We are almost all obsessed by the weather in this country and, if you’re not careful, listening to weather forecasts can seriously damage your health. It seems as though the forecasters have to put a bad spin on what they tell us, and if you took them all seriously, you wouldn’t get anything done for fear of being rained on – or worse.
Beekeepers are even more paranoid about the weather than gardeners. It is true to say that we have seen some extremes of weather in recent years, with 2012 being a washout, followed by a cold spring then scorching summer in 2013.
You gardeners had it bad then, frosted blossom and produce rotting in the ground. Even greenhouse crops suffered from nasty infections and infestations. Animal life in general, and honey bees in particular had it bad in 2012 because queens couldn’t get out of the hives to mate.
As a queen only has about 23 days from hatching in which to do so, it is of paramount importance that she gets on with it while she is able. After that time, queens can only lay useless eggs. They will hatch, but they will all be male and as male bees, or drones, are lazy individuals who contribute nothing to the colony, it, they and she will soon die. That was the fate of a goodly number of colonies in 2012.
Last year by contrast, was the polar opposite; although Spring was very late, summer just went on and on. We had a very long dry spell from June to September with very little rainfall and wall to wall sunshine. What could be better? Well, if you are a bee, some rain could be better, because, without rain, plants don’t produce as much nectar and bees collect nectar to convert into honey which is be their food through the winter.
Sounds depressing, doesn’t it? The honey crop for both years was disappointingly low in many areas and, as we went in to the winter, the weather didn’t cool down significantly and the queens kept laying eggs well into October. Female honey bees (workers) normally live for about six weeks, but most of those that hatch in the late summer and autumn will live all the way through the winter until the queen has got into the full swing of laying again the next spring.
As there wasn’t much honey last year, we had to supplement the bees’ winter feed with sugar syrup. Quite a lot; each of my hives was fed an average of 32kgs (70lbs) of sugar in syrup form. This year has got off to a cracking start, though, and I have already taken more honey from two hives than I had in the whole of last year from all seven of mine.
However, the spring wild flowers are almost over and it will be a while before the summer ones like bramble kick in. This is where you, the gardener really comes into your own. It is relatively easy to be extremely pollinator friendly without even noticing it. If you grow raspberries, you will find that honeybees and bumblebees love the simple and unpretentious flowers. The same is true of strawberries, blueberries and even gooseberries. Other shrubs and small trees are excellent providers of nectar and pollen at a time of year when there is precious little in the countryside. Pyracantha, Spirea, holly, Weigela, Abelia, Lavender and Snowberries (symphoricarpos) are all excellent providers, and the list goes on. They may not all be pretty, but bees and pollinating insects love them.
‘I don’t have any of those in my garden’, you might say. If not, think about getting them established for next year, because they perform such a service to insects. Gardening requires planning ahead, like a lot of things. In a few weeks Lime trees could, given the right conditions, produce a bumper crop of honey. Just think how many flowers there are on something the size of a full grown lime tree. If spread out, it would be equivalent to a small field of wild flowers. Many of you will be aware that ants ‘farm’ aphids for the sweet waste products they provide, when infesting your runner or broad beans. Lime trees come under similar attack and, consequently, have one other trick up their sleeves. Some species of aphids which suck sap from these trees also exude a sticky sweet substance which both bees and ants go wild for.
It is called honeydew. Park your car under a lime tree in June or early July and you will know exactly what I mean. Honeybees love honeydew and collect it from the aphids.
This is taken back to the hive in the same way as nectar, and the resultant honey is a dark brown with a slightly bitter sweet flavour, but some people love it [I do - Ed.].
There have been more swarms this year than I can remember in a long time, and many of them have not been captured, which means they won’t survive for long. It is, for the most part, a symptom of bad beekeeping, I am sorry to say. If a swarm escapes, then half the workforce has gone and honey production will suffer accordingly. Precautions can be taken to control swarming, but it can’t be stopped altogether.
If you would like to know a little bit more about beekeeping, this is the time of year to do it. Most beekeeping courses start in the winter, but many associations within the British Beekeeping Association (BBKA) hold 'taster' days. They won’t give you the full picture, but they will let you know if beekeeping is for you. If you want to find one of these open days near you, go to the BBKA website https://www.bbka.org.uk.
Here in Somerset there are several and our very own will be held on Sunday July 13th at the Avalon Marshes Centre, adjacent to Shapwick Heath National Nature Reserve. It costs only £20.00 and that includes lunch (but I have no idea if you get a honey sandwich or not..). Some commercial bodies charge a lot more, but we are a registered charity, not a business. For more details contact Steve Horne on 01278 662335 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Places are limited to 30 people, so get cracking.
Starting beekeeping is not an immediate thing and neither is gardening, so if you are thinking about keeping bees, or if you would like your garden to help them and other pollinators more then now is the time to start planning for next year.