Sometimes we look at life on our beautiful planet with wonder and awe at the incredible way in which it all fits together so perfectly. Perhaps some people with a religious or spiritual leaning can see a guiding hand at work. Other times, bad things happen; floods or volcanic eruptions, storms, outbreaks of disease – and we wonder what’s going on, and why. Throughout good times and bad, whatever is alive today has triumphed; genes being passed along over millions of years, surviving and adapting to changes.
Millions of years ago, the honey bee branched off from wasps and developed alternative strategies for survival. They became hairy and vegetarian, and they kept the colony intact throughout the year. The hairs help with pollen collection, which is the vegetarian source of protein that bees consume. A wasp colony dies out in late summer; not so with honey bees. The mated wasp queens hibernate in winter and have to start from scratch each spring. Honey bees behave differently in winter to summer, but the colony continues; queens change, but the colony goes on.
One trait of honey bees that results in beekeepers’ existence is their tendency to store honey over and above what they need to survive. They keep on bringing in nectar as long as it’s available and they have somewhere to store it. The skilled beekeeper must understand the nature of bees and the rhythms and cycles of the seasons. They hope to use the natural instincts of honey bees and steer them towards peak population at the times when most nectar is available. Swarm control, equalising colonies, feeding and managing disease are all used by beekeepers to achieve their goals.
It therefore follows that to be a successful keeper of bees, you have to build up several years of knowledge and experience of your bees and their environment. Different areas have different plants and different timings of flows. Not all bees are the same; some are more frugal than others, or more prolific, or more prone to robbing, swarming and so forth. Every year is different; sometimes we have a rainy summer, sometimes not. I think this is why the first 3 – 5 years of beekeeping can be quite challenging (at least they were for me).
In my area, there are specific sources of nectar from which a honey crop is possible. There are plenty of pollen and nectar sources throughout the year that help the bees, but I’m not likely to get a honey crop from them (e.g. dandelion). Once upon a time, a big honey plant was white clover but no so now. The diagram below shows the primary honey crop sources in my area, as far as I know.
A significant early honey crop for some people now is oilseed rape. For me, some apiaries have access to this bright yellow banquet for some years and not others. I’m not in a big OSR area, but my bees will enthusiastically collect it when it’s there. Theoretically, I could take some hives to the heather in August, but it’s all too much hassle. I get plenty of late nectar from Himalayan balsam, but my aim is to let the bees use that for their winter stores.
It seems that the ideal situation for my bees is that they are fueled by the flows from blossoms, OSR and other trees (sycamore, oak, horse chestnut) to build up a large brood nest in May/June. This results in a maximum population of forager bees ready to exploit the summer flow from bramble and lime. Later flows from willowherb and balsam provide winter stores. Last year we had poor July weather which meant that very little honey was added to supers after May. What you had in May was basically your honey for the year.
Unpredictable and difficult
In some locations, the weather is very predictable, and consequently, honey flows come along more or less like clockwork. Beekeepers know what’s coming and can manage colony sizes to maximise their crop. However, when you live where I do there is no way you can predict the weather. The best strategy is often to maintain strong colonies so that when a flow comes along the bees can bring it in.
In Honey Farming, Manley wrote: “Our honey flows are often extremely heavy when they come, but the time of their advent is entirely problematical. Usually, we have about three weeks of good weather between 1st May and 31st August. Good weather for bees, I mean. The rest of the time the weather is chilly, cloudy, windy, wet, foggy or even downright cold, but interspersed with short intervals of sunny days...Our chief troubles in this land of ours, so far as beekeeping goes, are too much cold, dark weather, and too little sunshine in the summer.”
Against this backdrop, my decision to carry out a field trial in summer of creating a brood break by caging queens seems foolhardy. Still, the point of trials is to find stuff out, so I’ll hopefully find something.