Firstly, my dear Dad died last week. Apart from being a Dad, which is a pretty big thing to be, he was a loyal reader of this blog. Dads are meant to be supportive of their son’s endeavours, and mine was. I know that he learned a bit about bees and enjoyed some of my meandering text. The funeral is next Thursday, and I’m hoping to be able to speak about him in church without fluffing my lines. He knew he was dying from cancer, we all knew that, but his passing still feels sudden. The signs were there; all flesh wasted away leaving a skeletal almost unrecognisable frame, loss of appetite, weakness, constant sleeping, comments from doctors such as, “have you got his Do Not Resuscitate form?” and so on. From a biological point of view, he did his job; he passed on his DNA to his three children, as I have passed it on to my three. More importantly, he was a loving and proud father of this walrus and my siblings. Imagine if throughout your whole life your Dad told you that you were perfect, and a genius? That’s what I had from him. Hopefully it didn’t make me too big headed!
Notwithstanding the above, there is a bee blog to be written.
There are multiple related quotes from old timers about bees, such as that by Dr C C Miller, who said, “The only consistent thing about bees is their inconsistency.” Brother Adam said, “Listen to the bees and let them guide you.” Wedmore said, “Bees do nothing invariably.”
In a similar way to something in a legal textbook about “taking each case on its merits,” this is what the wise beekeeper must do with each colony of bees; observe what they are doing and what they need, then give it to them. One colony may be getting along fine without you, so let them. The hive next door may have problems, so deal with them. Commercial beekeepers will try to equalise hives in an apiary so that they are all of similar strength; it makes it much easier to manage if this is the case, but there is always that one hive that does better than the others, and another that fails to perform. They have hundreds of colonies to inspect and need to work fast, so they quickly assess if a colony is fine, and move on if it is. This gives them time to deal with the occasional “awkward” colony that may need special attention. Good commercial beekeepers love and care for their bees as much, or more than hobby beekeepers, but they know where to concentrate their efforts.
There are so many variables in beekeeping that it should not be surprising that the quote about inconsistency holds true. Take the climate, for instance. Just on the small island that I call home, there can be significant variations between regions. Yesterday in the South and East of the UK temperatures peaked at 22 degrees Celsius whereas up in Perth, Scotland, it maxed out at 13 degrees. I’m sure the bees will have been behaving very differently in these two locations which are less than 500 miles apart. Overall the falling temperatures, changing forage and shortening days inform the bees that Winter is on its way, so they will be making preparations accordingly.
In my area, I’m lucky to be near to Himalayan balsam, and my bees have been enthusiastically foraging on that for several weeks. They are building up their stores for the cold months ahead. In some areas, beekeepers are not so fortunate, and they will have had to feed sugar syrup to their bees to prevent starvation, assuming that they have harvested the honey. The ivy will be coming into flower near me soon, and bees love it. I feel the weight of my hives and feed sugar syrup to those that need it before the ivy flow starts. Like nectar from oilseed rape, ivy nectar contains a high proportion of glucose, which means that it crystallises quickly. I don’t want a load of solid honey in my combs so I like to feed syrup, which will stay liquid under the wax cappings. I don’t know for sure that there is anything wrong with crystalised honey in the hive; I have a preference for its absence, but bees go mad for the ivy, so they don’t share my reservations. Given a choice, the bees would also hold onto the honey that they made in the Summer rather than have it stolen by me. I do my best to keep them healthy and happy, but in the end, I take their honey, and they have no choice but to accept this.
The genetics of the bees vary too, which influences behavioural traits. Some bees consume very few stores over a normal Winter; others are more active, and therefore munch their way through their honey more quickly. There is a balance between the genetic traits and the weather. In a warm winter, bees will be more active and will need more fuel (honey) for this activity. Some queens shut down egg laying for several of the coldest months, whereas others keep laying at a reduced rate. Brood needs to be kept warm, which means more honey needs to be consumed when it is present.
Many beekeepers rely on honey from heather for a large chunk of their income. Heather flowers quite late in the season, sometimes well into September, and this makes for an entirely different timetable to a beekeeper in an area where the main crop is from oilseed rape or summer wildflowers. When the bees return from the heather, they still have to be treated for varroa mites once the honey is removed, and then feeding syrup can take place in October. Murray McGregor of Denrosa Apiaries often feeds sugar to his bees very late in the season because his main crop is heather. He is very keen on polystyrene top feeders which he uses on most of his hives, including those made of wood because they provide welcome insulation. He has photographs on his Twitter account of bees taking syrup in December.
The important thing is this; do not keep bees based on a calendar or what happened last year or what is happening in a different region – you have to observe the bees, listen to them and let them guide you, as an old Benedictine monk at Buckfast used to say. The signs are there, and our job is to read them.