Back in March, I wrote a piece for OAPSchat called Getting the Buzz on Bees. Beekeeping is the perfect excuse to spend time in the fresh air, grow lots of flowers—and call it saving the planet!
Sadly, this washout of a summer has been quite a challenge for me, and a lot of other beekeepers
The summer soundtrack of my childhood was the constant hum of bees from gnarled old lavender bushes and big patches of creeping thyme in my granny’s garden. It’s been good to recapture that over the past ten years of my beekeeping career, but 2016 has been the most difficult for bees that I can remember. The weather has never been good enough, for long enough. Bees need lots of warm, still days to collect all the pollen and nectar they need to feed and grow their colonies, with enough supplies left over enough to store as honey.
A swarm high up in the tree
Do you remember the old rhyme? “A swarm of bees in May is worth a load of hay; A swarm of bees in June is worth a silver spoon; but a swarm of bees in July isn’t worth a fly”
When bees swarm, they’re looking for a new home. When they find one, the workers have to clean it up (very thoroughly), settle in, and get the queen into a good laying rhythm so they can raise a new generation of bees. It’s those strong youngsters that will gather supplies to store as honey for the winter. All this takes time. That’s why there’s a chance you could get a crop of honey from a swarm gathered in the early part of the summer, but once we’re past the longest days, bees are in a race against time to stock up before winter. There may not be enough honey for them, let alone a hungry beekeeper.
Solitary bee looking for pollen
We’ve had a few sunny spells this year, but far too many wet, cold days. I’ve had to feed my bees at least once a month to keep their strength up. I mix white granulated sugar into hot water at the rate of 1kg sugar to 1 litre of water (or a pound of sugar to every pint of water, if you prefer. It’s the ratio that matters, not the unit of measurement) then go out at dusk to fill up the special feeders I’ve put on each hive. At that time of day the bees are all clustered inside, and getting sleepy. If I were to feed them during the day they’d get excited, attracting the attention of robber bees and later in the season, wasps and hornets. As it takes at least twenty bees to kill one invading wasp, I don’t want to put my colonies under any more stress than I can help.
They wake up to breakfast in bed, instead!
My interest in beekeeping started when a swarm of bees settled in our garden, and I had to call in an expert to take them away. Things came full circle in early July this year when a blizzard of bees came up the valley. I had high hopes of capturing this swarm to create a new colony in my apiary. After my first nerve-racking introduction to bees, I’ve learned to deal with swarms myself. Unfortunately, this bunch latched on to a branch twenty feet up in a dense and very prickly hawthorn tree. It would have been far too dangerous and uncomfortable to get them down, so I’m afraid they had to stay there until one of their scouts found a nice new home in the wood, and they moved off.