Busy as a beekeeper: Here in my part of England, the weather is currently absolutely perfect, and we have shaken off the oppressive depressed state induced by a long cold Winter followed by a miserable Spring. It is incredible how rapidly Nature responds to such changes. We went from skeletal trees and frozen ground to an explosion of green, white and yellow as the Spring flowers exploded on the scene. We had willow (great early pollen for bees) then dandelion (pollen and nectar) and fruit tree blossoms, then hawthorn, sycamore, oak and horse chestnut all arriving at once. In many areas the oilseed rape (canola) has come and gone, although I rarely see much of that where I keep my bees.
Everything has bloomed simultaneously, or so it seems. Right now I can go for a walk and see bluebells and hawthorne still in flower, while at the same time the hardwood trees are wasting no time at all. I have even seen lime trees (Lindens) just about to come into flower. Linden honey is probably my favourite. I believe it’s what bee farmers call a compressed season, which can be a good thing if the bees are strong enough to take advantage.
Just six weeks ago there were numerous reports of high Winter losses of honey bees due to the harsh Winter. The “Beast from the East” which came in two waves certainly sorted out the wheat from the chaff, but beekeepers in Northern areas, such as Vermont and Scandinavia, will testify that our Winters are a pathetic imitation of the snowbound months that they endure each year. In my opinion, many losses will have been due to high varroa loads in the autumn which, if untreated, cause colonies to die out pretty quickly. However, now the beekeeping forums are alive with tales of swarming, of large colonies and “making increase” to replace colonies that were lost. That’s how it goes with honey bees; you lose some over the Winter, and you make it up in early Summer when the bees naturally want to reproduce.
Beekeepers, or should I say, commercial beekeepers, are insanely busy right now. The queens are laying as fast as they can, and hive populations are expanding exponentially. Pollen and nectar are flooding in, and the job of the beekeeper is to ensure that they have space. Space for the queen to lay, space for nectar to be stored and space for all those bees. Drones are now on the scene too, male bees who do not work inside the hive and have no sting; their role being the important one of mating with virgin queens on the wing at particular locations called drone congregation areas. Of course, this part of the season is also very much about dealing with colonies who are about to swarm, or collecting those that have swarmed. The following video shows how they do artificial swarms in Brittany, France:
So much of beekeeping is about timing. Right now, if your bees came out of the winter strong, they will be enormous, vibrant, bustling colonies bringing in masses of delicious honey. I have a few hives like that, and I’m grateful. Those that entered Spring in a weakened state will either have dwindled away or will be growing fast, but perhaps they won’t yet be strong enough to make excess honey for their keepers. Now is also a critical time window for those that breed their own queens. Once we get to late August it’s time to remove the Summer honey and start preparations for the Winter once more, so the queen rearing season is not long. I will soon be making up a cell builder colony so that I can have a bash at producing queens of my own, made from the larvae of my favourite queen. Actually, I have two favourite queens, so I’ll be selecting the lucky lady in the next week. It may be a case of “the one that hasn’t swarmed” but hopefully not.
So spare a thought for all the men and women working in this glorious heat on the bees. They are no doubt sweating profusely as they move boxes around (there is a lot of lifting of boxes in beekeeping). Sure, the bees are busy, but they are evolved for that very purpose, whereas those of us of a walrus disposition are less so.
[Main Image: Horse Chestnut Tree in Flower by Renoir]