This beekeeping malarky is not a simple matter of putting bees in a box and leaving them alone; far from it. A lot of work and cost, in both time and money, goes into ensuring that our bees are booming and healthy and productive. Always remember the saying, “If you look after your bees, they will look after you.”
As I said in a recent article, you’ve got to have a plan. Part of that concerns what you want from your bees; do you want to make tons of honey, or increase hive numbers, or breed and sell queens, sell nucs, use wax and propolis and royal jelly for various products? Whatever it is that you want to achieve, the starting point must be a solid understanding of the flora in your area and how it changes with the seasons. If you are going to be a beekeeper you have to know your plants and your climate. No matter how strong and healthy the hive, if there are no flowers they can’t collect nectar and pollen, and they can’t make wax without a nectar flow. Some of beekeeping is about knowing where and when to place your hives.
We need to understand our local environment; how does the temperature and amount of light change over the months, what flowers first, and next and next? We can then begin to understand what the bees’ plans are given a typical year. Then if we are having an unusual year, we can figure out what the bees will do to get through this obstacle. Bees have been around for a very long time and whatever they have done seems to have worked; they are nothing if not survivors. That is not to say that sometimes, in some areas, nature conspires to make life intolerable for bees leading to exceptional losses. The Winter of 2012/13 in parts of Scotland was a time when many beekeepers suffered very high losses because bees went into Winter undernourished due to a poor Summer, followed by a long icy Winter with frosts extending into the Spring which prevented the bees from flying. From what I have heard the biggest dangers to honeybees, apart from incompetent beekeepers, is the weather, followed by viruses caused by varroa mite infestations, and then the loss of forage caused by humans changing the landscape.
Many non-beekeepers think of garden flowers when they think of bees. Honey bees do visit gardens, but they tend to have a preference for something more substantial if it is available. Bright yellow fields of oilseed rape are irresistible to honey bees, and why not? Acres and acres of flowers are more attractive to a colony of 50,000 honey bees than a few garden plants, but sometimes, especially in mid to late Summer, a thoughtfully stocked garden can be a lifeline for bees when the land is devoid of tree flowers or wildflowers or crops. Honey bees evolved in forests, and they love to visit many flowering trees, which tends to happen around May in my area. An enormous great row of oak or horse chestnut or lime trees (they flower a bit later) is a feast for bees. Before I kept bees, I barely noticed that trees flowered, but they do.
Over the years the observant beekeeper learns about his or her local environment; the preferred forage for their bees and the times when they are in bloom. If you want honey, you need your beehives near to the forage and bursting with flying bees at the time when it is in flower. This is also the time when bees will be making wax and swarming, which is something else to keep an eye on.
In my area, we don’t see much oilseed rape. There is some dotted about but my apiaries seem to be away from it. I get a lot of pollen throughout much of the year, lucky me, and early nectar flows from fruit trees, dandelions, sycamore, and hawthorn followed by hardwood trees such as oak and horse chestnut, then sometimes lime (lindens). I also get some clover, lots of bramble (blackberry), some rosebay willow herb and then towards the end of the season lots of Himalayan balsam and finally ivy. These are the flowers that my bees mostly live on. I made a chart showing median midday temperatures based on recent seasons overlaid with when the bee plants are in flower, and I find it very helpful when planning for the year ahead.
The chart is also helpful in reminding me about potential problems. Here are some of them:
– colonies that come out of Winter small and weak may not be able to build up in time to make the most of the honey flow
– a long cold Spring can prevent bees from getting out and collecting pollen so they can’t rapidly increase their numbers
– when colonies are strong, and forage is plentiful in May/June, the bees will tend to swarm; it is the perfect time to do so as they have the resources to start a new colony
– some colonies may have heavy varroa mite loads by the time it gets to June/July and may need treating while the honey boxes are still on the hive (we don’t want to taint the honey with treatments)
– once the main flow has ended, there are vast numbers of bees in the hive with not a lot to do, which could lead to robbing or just consuming the honey that they have collected, leaving less for me
– later in the Summer wasps are a big problem for me; they will destroy weak colonies (usually smaller nucs), but they also occupy the larger colonies making the bees more defensive
– sometimes there is a dearth, perhaps due to prolonged dry weather or never-ending rain, and the bees may consume their own young and throw out the drones
– we need to work out the best time to take the honey, to treat for varroa, and to feed if necessary so that the hive is strong for Winter; get this wrong, and we lose our bees
I use my climate/forage chart in conjunction with my hive population/varroa chart (borrowed from Randy Oliver) to help work out my plans for the year to come. It gives me a framework, something to hang onto, but I have to remember that nature doesn’t always do what I expect. I have to be ready to cope with when things do not go according to the plan, but that’s OK. Luckily I don’t rely on my bees for my livelihood, so if things go badly wrong I will be sad, but still able to live my life in the way I choose. Commercial bee farmers are in a different position; if disaster strikes and they have an awful year many can just about survive, but it can’t be easy, and I wonder how many would be able to survive two bad years in a row? It happens. The beekeepers I have interviewed have stood the test of time, and I feel confident in taking their advice; they have seen most things but are always ready for the unexpected. These people are my heroes, which is why I am writing “Interviews with Beekeepers” – how lucky am I?!