I’m back from my holiday in Lanzarote. I have seamlessly adjusted from blue skies and 26 deg Celsius to whatever ridiculous weather we have here in Manchester. My bees are not flying; they are indoors trying in vain to form webbed feet.
Today I did a rare thing for me. I had a stall at the Autumn artisan fair at Red House Farm near Dunham Massey at which I sold my delicious Walrus Honey. Mrs Walrus, my lovely sales assistant, was in attendance. We sold 27 jars at £6 per 340g and then promptly reinvested much of the proceeds into Christmas gifts. That’s the problem with these artisan fairs – there are too many goodies for sale on site. Anyway, it was fun talking to the fine folk of Cheshire who stopped by.
In Praise of the ABJ
I’m a big fan of the American Bee Journal. A recent article by Peter Borst looks into something that I have written about many times, namely, “are bees going extinct?” He correctly points out that when the public hears that bees are vanishing, they wrongly think of honey bees. In fact, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) figures, the number of managed honey bee colonies worldwide shows a steady rise. In 1960 beekeepers had 50 million colonies, now it’s up to 81 million. However, it’s estimated that there are more than 310 million colonies of wild honey bees in Africa. There could also be 200 million+ colonies of native honey bees in the Americas.
If we look at honey bees kept by people, then clearly things seem to be on the up and up. As the majority of honey bees worldwide are not managed colonies, we don’t really know for sure what’s going on with them. The Africanised Honey Bee (AHB) is the one that does so well in the wild in Africa and South America. They have a tendency to be defensive and are prone to swarm frequently, which is why people in Europe and North America prefer to keep alternative types of honey bee. European honey bees suffer more from the effects of varroa mites and viruses than Africanised bees, so beekeepers have a vital role to play keeping them healthy.
Bee History in the USA
Peter Borst described the changes in the US managed colonies over the last century. Apparently, the official figures in 1900 showed that there were 3 million, but many believe that small numbers on hives were omitted. During World War Two, sugar was rationed. Beeswax was needed by the military for protective coatings on shells and planes, so there was significant growth in beekeeping – hives doubled to 6 million. Numbers fell to 4 million colonies by 1970 because sugar became available once more and the demand for wax dropped away.
In the early 1980s, the US Government stopped counting hives. When they restarted in 1985, they revised their method and no longer counted beekeepers who had 5 hives or less. Overnight the number of colonies recorded in the USA dropped by a million. To this day the numbers are understated because they only count about 70% of the hives, says Peter.
In recent years the massive demand for almond pollination services in February in Northern California has skewed beekeeping across the USA. Beekeepers from all over the country are moving their bees to the almonds each year. They are trying to have strong colonies of bees in February, which is not natural for bees in many States. When the primary income was from honey and wax, the colonies would have low populations in February. They would be huge in June to catch the honey flow. Nowadays the money is in pollination, and they need lots of bees in February – it’s an entirely different dynamic.
Economic Value of Pollinators
Peter Borst also de-bunks the old adage, “every third bite of food we eat depends on bees,” and that without bees we would starve. A study by Nicola Gallai in 2009 looked into the actual contribution of pollinators to the world’s food supply. The economic value of the crops that require pollinators was 9.5% of the value of food crops. They also consisted primarily of non-staple foods. The top five were: almonds, sunflowers, canola, grapes and apples.
In 2012 Dr Nicholas Calderone gathered all of the stats on the US honey bee population and fruit production over the past several decades. It showed that as the honey bee colony numbers were falling the production of fruit was rising, almost in inverse proportion. He suggested that wild pollinators may be doing a lot more work than we ever thought.
Staying alive (mostly)
One thing I do know from experience is that keeping bees is not easy. In some years, when the weather is kind, nectar flows freely, and pollen is abundant, it can seem easy. Most years are not like that. I have no actual beekeeping to do now because winter is more or less here. My bees have been treated for mites and fed sugar syrup where necessary. They are strong and cosy in their hives. I have done all I can. Most colonies should survive winter and, weather permitting, have a fantastic future. Some will die; it happens every year. Nature is like that. She keeps us on our toes but being part of her intricate fabric is a privilege and fun.