To me, the bee season never seems to last very long. I’m already thinking about winter holidays and it’s still August. Perhaps this has something to do with all the rain we have had in my area over the last few weeks. As a well padded walrus I have plenty of insulation about me but recently I have been considering lighting a fire in the evenings. Mrs Walrus and I like to huddle near the wood burner on winter evenings and watch hours of American TV series on Netflix or Amazon.
In some places the beekeeping season really is short. In Scandinavia, Canada and the northern states of USA they get actual snow – the kind which falls in Autumn and stays there until Spring. Beekeepers there really have to pack everything into a short time window; it is so important to have strong colonies in March/April, ready to build up fast. The ability of a colony of bees to get through winter is extremely important, not just in the icy North. So as I approach the rear end of my season I have some tasks to perform which will hopefully ensure that I still have bees next year.
Bees are wild animals which have been around for 50 million years or so. They know a thing or two about survival. Having started out in the warm dry climate in parts of Africa/Asia they have spread across the globe and become both commonplace and economically important. They bring pleasure to millions, being a key part of the orchestra that plays the sound of summer, and their enthusiastic visits to flowers provides pollination services so that we can enjoy fruits and vegetables, not to mention a generous scoop of honey on our morning porridge. All should be rosy in the garden.
Unfortunately, a type of parasitic mite named varroa destructor has plagued honeybees in recent times (since 1992 in the UK) and has spread pretty well everywhere except Australia. In the opinion of most beekeepers of long standing the varroa mite is the biggest threat to honeybees, although the disappearance of wild flower meadows and suitable forage comes a close second. Because varroa mites evolved on a different type of bee, the honeybee cannot easily defend itself against it, and colonies left alone for even a year will often dwindle and die, such is the potency of this new foe. In human terms this is like a flu pandemic, where the virus hops from one species such as birds or pigs, to another. The Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 killed over 50 million people.
Enter the beekeeper. Our role is to help our bees deal with many hardships, varroa mites in particular, and to set the colonies up in Autumn so that they come through winter fit and strong. We need to educate ourselves so that we can spot and deal with the many pests and diseases that may befall our bees. An excellent source of help can be found at Beebase .
My reward for keeping my bees healthy is hopefully plenty of honey. After taking the honey I need to treat for varroa mites and check for other diseases (and take whatever action is necessary if I find anything). They should have time to collect nectar and store it for winter, but if the hives need it they will be fed sugar syrup in September. Later I will put mouse guards on the entrances because although I am happy for mice to roam the earth I would prefer them not to set up house in my bee hives. Mice, like me, prefer to spend winter in a warm cosy place, and instead of a woodburner they will happily make do with heat from a cluster of bees and a few combs to munch on. I will put some polystyrene insulation above the top of the hive, under the roof, to prevent condensation dripping down when it gets colder outside. Any colonies that are too weak to get through winter will be combined with stronger colonies.
So there are still things to do before this season is over. I haven’t had as much honey as I was hoping for, but now that I have new queens in my hives, from really top quality breeding stock, the future is bright. As a beekeeper, you have to be both an optimist and a pragmatist. The more pragmatic you are, the more optimistic you are entitled to be.