August 2011

Well, what a month it has been – even summer, some might say! This is the first time for five years that we have had a July with hot weather that has continued beyond the first or maybe second week. I know we had a cold, wet spell earlier in the month, when in fact I thought we were repeating the previous years’ weather pattern, but the weather conditions this month have been ideal for our main honey crop, clover.

The warmth has encouraged it to grow and the rain has enabled it to yield vast amounts of nectar, which is of course very attractive to honeybees. Even on days which are overcast, the weather has been warm enough for the clover to yield and for the bees to be able to collect. This has caught out a lot of beekeepers because the space needed by bees to hold the nectar whilst converting it into honey is three times the final space required to store the finished product! That translates to a lot of space in a beehive!

If beekeepers have not been on the ball, the bees will have run out of storage space and when this happens the only thing the poor bees can do is swarm! I have been called out to so many swarms this year, far more than last year or the year before (my memory doesn’t go back much further than that!), all down to shortage of nectar/honey storage space, I suspect. The reason I say that is that at this time of year the queen is reducing her laying rate and the cells that she is no longer using for brood rearing are being filled with nectar/honey ready for the winter that lies not too far ahead. The fact that she does not need so much laying space is therefore a help to us beekeepers, as we don’t need to worry about whether or not she actually does have enough space because the brood nest is now contracting and no longer expanding.

However, the bees are creating a slight problem for themselves by swarming at this time of year because they will need to build up a sufficiently large colony, with adequate stores of honey and pollen, to see them through the winter months – and time is no longer on their side. When swarms are collected at this time of year, it is essential that they are fed with sugar syrup (alright, so there is a heavy nectar flow on at the moment, so the need is not quite so urgent – until it stops). Such feeding (or strong nectar flow) encourages the queen to lay as much brood as she can to create a viably sized colony for over-wintering warmth, facilitates the building of new comb to accommodate this brood and the winter stores they are frantically trying to accumulate, and gives the nurse or house bees the sustenance to be able to fulfil their many hive-bound duties (feeding the brood, feeding/grooming the queen, drawing the new comb, etc).

But what else is happening, apart from this frenetic activity whilst the weather is kind to us (and them). The wasps are also finding their brood nest is reducing in size, since their queen also is reducing her laying rate, just like the honeybee queen. This means, with less brood requiring less meat for it to develop (remember, wasps are basically carnivores from which developed the nectar-dependent bees millions of years ago at the time that flowers appeared on the planet), the sweet liquid reward exuded by the brood on being fed this meat is no longer so forthcoming. This means the adult wasps need to find their sugar-hit elsewhere – and guess where that might be! The bee-hive!

Now is a very critical time for the bees and it is essential we watch our colonies carefully to ensure they are not robbed of all their honey by marauding wasps – who can totally destroy a bee colony by virtue of numbers. They will initially steal the nectar or honey from the stores. Then, when that is all gone, they will turn to the eggs and the larvae and devour those as well – bad news for a bee colony. The answer is wasp traps, viz. jam jars with a small hole in the lid (but large enough for a wasp to climb through), filled a third full with water and having a teaspoon of jam (not honey!) dissolved in by stirring. This will attract and drown many unwelcome wasps, but is of no interest to bees. It is easier for wasps to access and equally as attractive as honey in a bee-hive to the desperate wasps. It also works if you don’t have bees but have problems with wasps around your outside eating areas.

A few jam jar traps spread around will stop the wasps before they reach your table. We have a lot of wasps in Cornwall generally because the Cornish hedges which abound are ideal nesting sites for them – I had one this year in one of my hedges, I’ve just found another in a tunnel under a garden plant and I know I have at least one more – somewhere! Have you ever tried to follow a wasp in flight? Impossible! Since we have four main species of wasp in the UK, it is not unusual to find wasps with these differing nesting requirements – others build huge paper nests, the size of the ’60s paper lampshades, in bushes or trees.

However, whichever species has built such a nest, since the colony will die out in the autumn, the nest becomes empty and, if not taken away, will not be re-occupied next season. So there we are, the approach of the end to what we beekeepers call a swarmy season – but it’s not quite over yet! Continue to keep a look-out for the odd swarm or two and get in touch – there are several beekeepers on the Roseland who would be quite happy to remove such a swarm – free of charge.

Colin Rees 01872 501313 colinbeeman@aol.com

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