October 2010

At long last, the ivy honey flow has started, in some areas near the coast round about the beginning of September. This was after about 3 to 4 weeks of absolute nectar dearth such that some colonies were on the brink of starvation. That’s why the beekeeper is necessary, to keep an eye on his colonies and to feed them if they are getting short of food.

So having such a rampant source of nectar (ivy is everywhere down here) means the bees can stock up their larder for the winter months ahead – though from the beekeeper’s point of view ivy can be a pain. The problem is that since it contains a higher proportion of glucose than fructose, it tends to granulate very quickly – so fast, in fact, that it cannot be extracted like main crop honey as it solidifies in the comb. Not only that, but the bees themselves can also find it quite difficult to benefit from its presence in the hive during cold weather, because it is so solid that they need to gather water to bring it back into solution so they can eat it (Bees, you see, don’t ingest honey through their mouths like we do – they suck it up using their tongue (known as the proboscis) – and they can only do this if it is in liquid form).

But there is another consideration during the winter months; bees must maintain a body temperature of at least 7 degrees, so they can’t fly out to gather water on very cold days – or if they do, they run the risk of chilling and dropping to the ground to die. A difficult decision; die of starvation because you can’t fly out to gather water to dilute your stores, or die of the cold because you have flown out to gather water! Beekeepers therefore like to feed their bees with sugar water in September to ensure that there are some liquid stores present in the hive that the bees can access, the ivy nectar perhaps going upstairs into the honey box on the hive that the beekeeper can take away later.

But another problem is, when you feed the bees at this time, the queen (and the bees) think there’s another nectar flow taking place and the bees use up the sugar syrup stores to feed extra brood that the queen has been stimulated to rear because of the nectar (sugar syrup) income! This results in a larger than optimum colony going into the winter (one that will need a lot more stores to survive the cold, nectar-less months) which might, if it can access the food, eat it all before the warmer weather starts again in March or so, when they could fly out to gather more.

Who’d be a beekeeper – or who, perhaps, would be a bee? Mind you, they’ve managed to exist for millions of years without our intervention so what’s the big deal? The big deal is hardiness and abstemiousness. Up until the 1920’s our native bee was what is termed the “British Black” bee. But this race of bee was virtually wiped out in the UK by a disease epidemic that spread across (most of) the country. To make up for lost stocks, the only thing we could do was to import bees from abroad and they were brought in from everywhere – Italy, Greece, the Caucasus, eastern Europe, France, Germany and so on – but over the long term these foreign species have cross-bred to the point that we now have an indigenous race of mongrel bees in the UK – which are neither used to the cold climate nor the restricted stores (think of the shortness of our honey gathering season compared with, say, Greece or Turkey and think about the typical temperatures experienced there compared with the UK).

So there you have it; bees need beekeepers – and we need the bees to pollinate our food plants. How quid pro quo is that?

Colin Rees colinbeeman@aol.com 01872 501313

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