As winter turns to spring, beekeepers begin to swarm. Apiary associations up and down the UK hold training sessions at which old hands reveal to newcomers the secrets of keeping apis mellifora, the highly productive European or Western honey bee.
If you have ever thought about having a hive or two, now is the season to get involved. Taking its lead from the bees’ well-organised social order, The British Beekeepers Association has a network linking its 20,000-plus members. With a passion that rivals the watch aficionados of the CW Forum, the beekeeping community is keen to spread the word about the pleasures of nurturing one of nature’s most fascinating creatures.
Beekeeping courses are held throughout the year, but February and March are particularly appropriate months for BBKA members to impart their knowledge because in April the yearly cycle of airborne activity starts all over again. The most tangible sign of a new season is the appearance of a swarm of bees. Buckinghamshire-based Mike Britnell, who has been keeping bees as a hobby for more than 25 years, is one of the 12,000 “swarm officers” coordinated by the BBKA who are alerted to deal with these homeless insects.
“Bees follow a surprisingly precise timetable.
In recent years, my first swarm has appeared between April 15 th and April 24th. A swarm is formed by the survivors of last year’s colony that leave the hive to make room for the new season’s bees,” he says. “In the swarm the drones and worker bees surround the single queen bee to protect her while they locate a new home. We like to collect swarms to replace lost colonies and to get new beekeepers started.”
The enthusiastic and persuasive Mr Britnell is a neighbour of CW co-founder Mike France, who regularly hears about the delights of apiary. Perhaps Christopher Ward honey might appear on the website in the near future…
In the summer season, a hive can contain as many as 35,000 bees, but during the winter this figure dwindles to about 5,000. In autumn and winter, the bees do not hibernate, but stay together in the hive in a winter cluster. Like the beating pulse of a reliable watch movement, these incredible insects generate warmth by gently vibrating their wing muscles. The outer, colder, bees rotate with those on the inside.
The magic trigger point for spring activity is when the mercury reaches 55° F, or about 13° C. Now the bees get busy. «It is almost as though the bees have a group brain which discerns when everything in nature is ready for them,” says Britnell. «By the end of March and beginning of April, the single queen bee in the hive begins laying up to 1,600 eggs a day and the worker bees set off to collect nectar and pollen to feed the larvae from these.”
Estimates suggest that a hive requires as much as 66lb of pollen and 260lb of nectar to be sustaining, so it is good thing that apis mellifora is an omnivore. Snowdrops and daffodils are among the early-season sources of the bees’ food, but almost any type of plant or tree will attract their attention.
Bees are known to fly at least three miles from the hive on their foraging flights, but Mike Britnell reckons that four or five miles is not uncommon. The bees’ travels result in hone that is very different to that from supermarkets.
«In a good year, it is possible to get two batches of honey and they are likely to have distinctly different flavours because of different food sources. When I lived in a house with a laurel hedge the honey was dark brown and very rich. One year a local farmer planted a field with borage, the herb used to produce star-flower oil. Although borage flowers are blue, the honey produced was a light lime green, with a Vitamin C sharpness. It’s all so different to the industrially-produced stuff.”
For the beekeeper, getting between 30lbs and 50lbs of honey a season from a hive is a very sweet dividend. It is important, however, that keepers leave enough honey to see the colony through the winter.
Beekeeping is no longer a rural pastime. There are an estimated 3,200 colonies in Greater London alone, for example. Bees have been kept domestically at least since the times of ancient Egypt, so the principles are well proven. The big problem for British beekeepers, predictably, is the weather. The rain and cold of spring and summer 2012 caused just 8lbs of honey to be produced per hive, compared to the usual average of 30lbs-plus. The poor summer was feared to have had a longer term detrimental impact as new queens were unable to produce sufficient broods to see colonies through to this year. Bees are an essential link in our ecosystem, so it is important that their colonies thrive. So if you have ever thought of taking up beekeeping, 2013 is a very timely year to get involved.