Ahh, peace at last. My wife and her friends have just taken our two beagles out for a walk in the nearby Chorlton Ees nature reserve, and their deafening howls can no longer be heard, by me at least. Anyone nearby hoping to get a few extra hours of sleep on a dull Sunday morning will now be wide awake, no doubt cursing the noisy neighbours.
We are lucky to have the protected nature reserve area so near to us given that we live in a major city. It is a well managed space with some parts quite civilised and others left to grow wild, so we have wild flower meadows, lots of hawthorne, lime trees, cherry trees, rosebay willow herb and, right now, Himalayan balsam. Balsam grows in abundance alongside the local brook, and by now it covers the riverbanks, growing thick and tall with numerous pink and white flowers in a distinctive funnel shape.
Wherever you find balsam, you find two things in particular: vast numbers of honeybees working the flowers, and well meaning people trying to hack down as much of this invasive species as possible. Balsam is a non-native plant and it does tend to take over. It was introduced in 1839 as an ornamental, but it quickly spread out of gardens and into the countryside. It is beginning to move into hedgerows and verges as well as colonising riverbanks and lakesides, so many people are now familiar with it.
From an ecological standpoint I am happy to see attempts to control the spread of balsam, and from what I have seen in my area an equilibrium has been reached. The plant is hacked down and pulled up as part of managing the countryside, but it always returns each year and provides forage for honeybees. As a beekeeper I would be sad to see it go, because at this time of the year it provides nectar and pollen at exactly the right time to help the bees prepare for winter. The honey has been taken by the beekeeper and the bees have September and October to build up their stores for the winter ahead. Without balsam I would probably have to feed sugar syrup to my bees, but nowadays I don’t have to do much of that. The land has changed so much over recent years, and so much forage has been lost that it surely makes sense to have some of this valuable resource for bees about the place.
My bees are 10 miles away from my home, in a field of grass and clover, and when I saw them yesterday I was delighted to see them working away furiously, bringing in pollen and nectar. They look very cute with a distinctive white stripe down their backs – a sure sign that they are visiting balsam flowers. As they burrow deep into the funnel part of the flower it deposits pollen down the bees’ backs, giving them a white Mohawk hairstyle. I have never seen balsam near my apiary but clearly the bees have found it; good for them.
I removed the final batch of honey from my hives yesterday and treated the last few colonies for varroa, using Apivar strips. These are plastic strips impregnated with amitraz, a miticide which kills varroa mites but does not leave significant residues in the wax. Later in the year, around late December, I will also treat the hives with an Oxalic acid trickle, again to kill any remaining varroa mites. It is a constant battle against varroa. If varroa wins, I become an ex-beekeeper and a very sad walrus.
I have been reviewing my interview with Mike Palmer of French Hill Apiaries (Vermont) who has some interesting things to say on the subject of varroa, amongst many other things, but you’ll have to wait for my book to read that!