What a difference a few weeks makes, weather-wise, in this crazy country I live in. As I munched my way through two slices of malted grain toast with butter and orange marmalade, I looked out this morning on incessant rain. A few weeks ago we were basking in record-breaking temperatures and blue skies, but now it’s back to business as usual. Oh wait, the sun has just emerged for a moment. I think the term “changeable” was made for my weather.
Incidentally, and I apologise for the digression, I wonder where else in the world people eat toast and marmalade for breakfast? I’ve travelled around a bit, and it doesn’t seem very common at all, despite the indisputable superiority of marmalade in the morning to other spreads. I love honey but, for me, it is best in yoghurt, on porridge and as a sweetener for tea. An honourable mention must also go to Marmite; another delicious adornment to toast that I rarely see away from the UK.
Honey Bee Losses
Beekeepers know how important the weather is for their success. It is one of the most significant determinants of so many factors in the lives of our bees. When you see reports of high losses the blame rests on all sorts of things, but you will nearly always find that the weather was poor, although it rarely gets a mention.
If it rains a lot or is cold, the bees will not fly very much, or at all. In the Winter they have adapted to cluster and hunker down for those few months. When a slightly warmer day comes along, they will all fly out and have a good poo. In some areas like Scandinavia and Northern USA/Canada, the bees can be indoors for many months before being able to get out on a cleansing flight. In my area that is not the case.
A wet Summer will curtail the honey crop and limit the amount of pollen collected. Without pollen, less brood is raised, which means potentially fewer Winter bees. The knock on effect is higher Winter losses and colonies which start in Spring diminished and weak. If the Spring turns out to be cold or very wet, then the problem is compounded, because they still can’t collect pollen and as the Winter bees die off there is nothing to replace them.
Then there is the issue of the mating of queens; most literature states that she needs a temperature of 20 degrees Celsius (68 deg F) to go on her mating flight. Ideally, for a mating flight, it will be 20 deg C with low wind and no rain. There are plenty of locations in the UK and Ireland where such conditions are rare, so the bees that have adapted to cope are the ones which have survived in those areas.
Another behaviour linked to weather is swarming. There is a multitude of factors involved in swarming behaviour. Many beekeepers have told me that rainy days when foragers are forced to stay inside the hive are a trigger at certain times of the year. Here is an extract from my interview with Michael Palmer in July 2017:
Michael: I would say being confined in rainy weather is conducive to swarming.
Steve: That’s at particular times of the year?
Michael: Yes, in the swarm season. We’re having rain now [late July], but we’re not getting swarming. But in May, when we had three or four days of rain then one nice day, followed by three or four days of rain, then one nice day…
Steve: Basically the UK climate!
Michael: Swarming was terrible. But hopefully, it got done early enough so that they can build up and make a crop on the later flows. There’s really nothing else you can do. You manage them the best you can, and you do the same thing to every hive, and most of them will respond, but a number won’t.
As beekeepers, we need to know our locality intimately. The weather can be changeable and unpredictable, but if we are keeping bees in a particular area, then we owe it to ourselves to be attuned to its vagaries and to be prepared. In many places, there are micro-climates, locations that are more sheltered and always a little warmer, or conversely spots which harbour damp and cold more than their surroundings.
I keep my bees in East Cheshire where it is quite cool, wet and humid. These conditions are not unique; most of the UK and Ireland are like that. It is not exactly the perfect environment for honeybees, but it’s not so bad either. We have pollen throughout the year and because of the high moisture when the sun does finally shine we get strong surges of nectar leading to decent honey crops. Weather Charts.
Honey by the Ton
I think that the more successful beekeepers know their local climate well and prepare in advance for the ups and downs that Nature throws at them. In his book, “Honey by the Ton,” Oliver Field writes:
“Having established what we want, and having established that we are not likely to get it, what should we do to make the best of it? My advice must be as always: keep your bees up to strength from May until the end of July, for at any time in those three months a honey flow could come along, and if you miss it, then you have missed the crop of the season.”
A whole strategy follows on from the wise words of Oliver Field. To keep our colonies strong we may need to feed syrup during periods of shortage, and we must stay on top of swarming. If your swarm control method results in weak colonies, then you may miss the “crop of the season”. It also means that when we find small colonies in the Spring, colonies which are always going to be behind the rest, we should combine them and re-queen when queens are available (assuming disease is not the culprit).
It’s a long way to Tipperary
Hailstones are now pelting down into my garden. In the last two hours, we have gone from rain to sunshine to hail. No big deal, it’s normal for here. I’m off to Ireland for a few days next week to visit ancestral lands near Nenagh in North Tipperary and then on to the West Coast where they know a thing or two about wind and rain.