This Blog Post is based upon a piece written recently for an audience of beekeepers.
As a beekeeper, thoughts about nectar are always there in the back of one’s mind when they are not upfront. This year in particular quite a few things have set me thinking about nectar and perhaps they will sound familiar or at least of interest. I am not claiming to have special expertise in this area but I know what I experienced and it is our experiences that slowly build into knowledge and gain value for us to call upon in the future.
This year has been exceptional for me as a beekeeper of just nine summers. Let me set the scene. Last summer I had my largest crop of honey, the bees seemed to do well and I went into winter with two apparently strong colonies. Good stores, varroa levels low. All seemed ok. Oxalic acid treatment at the end of December and bees seemed active. Despite providing fondant in mid February one colony dwindled away by mid March and the other by mid April. They were not short of feed. To be honest I cannot say with confidence what went wrong but I feel it was poor husbandry on my part. Both queens were older than they should have been. I decided to reinvest some of last year’s honey money in three nice nucs (nucleus colonies). I took delivery of one in late June and two in early July. Each came with a frame or two of stores so there had been forage where they were bred.
For my apiary, trees (sycamore, horse chestnut, limes, hawthorn, fruit trees for example) are a major part of the spring / early summer nectar flow but that was over before I brought my new colonies home.
When I brought them home the June gap was taking on ominous proportions. Forage became my preoccupation – there wasn’t any. Beautiful warm/hot dry weather but the bees were staying at home. Instead of lovely little clouds of active bees in front of each hive there were a few bees popping their noses out and going back in doors. Garden flowers were in need of daily watering, wild plants in the meadow land nearby were of dwarf proportions and there were few flowers. What were these lovely new colonies to do to gain sustenance? It would have been normal practice to feed the bees after transferring them from five frame nucs to full brood boxes. The feeding of thin syrup to encourage the drawing of foundation and egg laying would have been normal practice but the weather / drought was inhibiting flower development and I suspect that such plants as were flowering were conserving precious water by reducing nectar production. So in lieu of nectar the three colonies were liberally fed. The feeding was continued for a few weeks as the hot summer and drought intensified. Plants needed their daily watering and even then some succumbed.
Routine colony inspections showed that brood was increasing and bee numbers were growing. The heat and drought continued but despite the tough conditions the bees remained calm and were a pleasure to handle with the sun on my back. Foraging activity was quite subdued and it became obvious at successive inspections that stores were limited and not increasing despite continuing with a thin syrup feed.
My concern about the limited flowers in garden and wild areas and the absence of honeybees on our bee-friendly garden flowers caused me to become a weather forecast junky. Radio, TV and weather apps on phone and laptop were an hourly preoccupation. No end to the 30 degree temperatures and the absence of rain was in sight. I began to feel a bit like an ancient mariner constantly scanning the horizon for land. A few bumble bees were taking advantage of my wife’s efforts (she is the gardener in the family). The number of bumble bees and range of species was pathetic by our usual expectations.
Every time a weather forecaster spoke heartily of record this and record that my worries about lack of nectar grew more anxiety making.
In calmer moments I thought to myself that honeybees as a species have quite possibly seen this all before, after all modern weather records only extend back for a few decades. The Continental / Mediterranean races whose genes were undoubtedly present in my new bees wouldn’t be troubled too much by the freak British summer of 2018 would they? So feeling a bit less emotional and a tiny bit more rational I concluded that the bees had secure accommodation, were young with current year queens so perhaps I should have a little more faith in their ability to forage and find nectar. I stopped the feeding, optimistically placed a honey super on the colony obtained in June but not those obtained in July.
Subsequent inspections showed that the colonies were doing ok but stores were limited and wax foundation wasn’t being actively drawn. A little honey appeared in a few frames in the lone super – nothing to get excited about – there certainly would be no honey crop this year. I run my hives with brood and a half (one full size brood box plus a super to be used for brood rearing in each hive). By August, with the weather still hot and dry, stores were a little improved, probably in part by the earlier syrup feeding.
I removed the super with the traces of honey and my thoughts turned to feeding winter strength syrup, after all in a normal year by now I would have taken a honey crop and set about feeding the colonies. I noted that wild flowers on the meadow areas were still of dwarf proportions. We have Woolly Thistles locally Cirsium eriophorum.
They are at the eastern edge of their range and normally stand a metre tall with their lovely cottony flower heads – not this year – there were only a few plants and they stood no more than 30 cms tall. My anxieties about plants and nectar seemed justified.
I commenced the winter feed regime in all colonies, no lack of demand, the bees were quickly emptying the feeders. Just this week I have stopped feeding as at last foraging seems to be recovering. Bees are enthusiastically flying to and fro and white and yellow pollen is being brought home. The half brood boxes are completely filled with stores and capped – there are also some stores on the frames in the full size brood boxes. I will inspect this week and decide if I have stopped feeding too soon – just a little time to feed a bit more but I am still anxious about forage. We do have ivy to come but I don’t want to rely too much on that.
So where are my thoughts about nectar now? It has been a challenging year for nectar particularly in the context of getting my lovely new colonies well established before winter.
But there has been even more for this anxious beekeeper to fret about. I mentioned earlier the very low numbers of bumble bees and solitary bees in our garden this year. We quite often see six or more species from spring into autumn with more than one bee foraging alongside our honey bees on our garden flowers. This year only two species and seen as occasional singletons. Plenty of wasps of course.
Hoverflies have been scarce too and apart from cabbage whites (in abundance) fewer butterflies.
Recently I heard an entomologist on the radio talking about the competition for forage between honeybees (generalists) and bumble bees (specialists) with bumble bees possibly suffering from competition from honeybees.
And finally I must refer to DJ’s very interesting piece in our county beekeepers newsletter (September 2018) where DJ makes us aware that modern Oil-seed-rape and Field Bean hybrid varieties produce less nectar than previously grown varieties.
Oh woe is me – this nectar neurotic is off and worrying again.