Reflections from the Apiary

20 October 2023

Reflections from the Apiary

It’s October and the end of the beekeeping year. The days are shortening, the wind picking up and, as far as the bees are concerned, the hatches have been battened down. The queen is curtailing her laying and the worker bees have transitioned from summer bees to stockier, stronger, winter bees designed to get the colony through the winter.

It’s been a very unusual beekeeping year. Spring was cold and late so when we did get some warmth the colony sizes expanded exponentially. The result? Swarms – lots of! Most beekeepers (including ourselves) ran out of equipment to collect swarms.

Some areas with good spring forage (not us unfortunately) did get a spring honey harvest. Those who rely on the summer nectar flow were disappointed. Our main nectar flow is in late June and July from the lime tree in the grounds. Instead of nectar the bees got rain – 175ml in July according to Margaret our Head Gardener. So the honey harvest was poor.

 

We took a hive up to the heather site (wish we had taken two) but even the heather nectar flow was substandard. An ideal year for heather honey is a wet May or June followed by a warm August. August was lovely but sadly not enough.

When we removed the honey, we fed the bees sugar syrup so they could make more stores for winter (commonly known as Tate & Lyle honey!). It’s sweet but lacking the constituents of floral nectar that give honey its gorgeous flavour but the bees don’t care. They just need it as an energy source. In a normal year most beekeepers would give the bees a helping hand in December by adding a block of fondant – just to be sure the bees have enough food. Getting bees through winter is usually easy – early spring is crunch time. Assessing how good the stores are is done by hefting the hives. Hefting is essentially lifting the hive from the back and assessing the weight. After many hefts you get to know when a colony is light on stores.

We have just had a very warm September (globally the warmest on record). The bees have been flying (uses energy), the queen still laying ie larvae need to be fed (uses more energy) and because of the strange year colonies going into winter are bigger than usual (oh –yet more energy needed). All this in parallel with very little forage and so the stores they made for Winter after we harvested their honey are already being used. We hefted the hives and four of the ten are light and needed supplemental feeding.

On the plus side – we are going into winter with ten healthy colonies having started the year with 3 strong and two weak colonies. Assuming all ten make it strongly through the winter and critical early spring periods we plan to take a couple of hives to a field of oil seed rape so we can get a spring honey harvest. The honey from oil seed rape granulates quickly to become spoon bendingly hard but we will turn it into soft set honey so you can spread it on your toast!

Post by Ilona
Ilona is the Head Beekeeper and leads the Apiary team.
Catherine Bradley.
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