After a perilous week of tube strikes in London and crocodile scares in Bristol, yesterday was a reminder that this is the most perilous time of year for honeybees.
The apiary was unexpectedly a buzz with beekeepers due to a change in the association’s calendar that had postponed the scout hut meeting till next weekend. There were two types of cakes on the table and I was advised to have a slice of each so as not to offend anyone. But it was too blustery for even the hardiest of Ealing beekeepers to stay for cake. John Chapple was the first to leave, wearing his festive Christmas-pudding style woollen hat.
The wind was getting stronger, so Emily and I went to quickly check the weight of the hives and fondant in the roof before we both were blown away. ‘There are purple crocuses out already, and snowdrops!’ Emily said excitedly, ‘Spring really is coming!’
Here are the purple crocuses that Emily was so excited about.
What a difference a week makes though. Myrtle’s and Chili’s hives were about the same weight, but Chamomile’s was much lighter. All three hives have plenty of fondant in the roof, so there is little that we can do except watch and wait.
This time of year is a waiting game for beekeepers. After over-wintering, the colony will soon be in need of new stores and new bees to forage. The winter bee reaching the end of her life must find the reserves to nurse and rear the first of a new generation of summer bees. How will she manage it? Ted Hooper explains in Guide to Bees & Honey how the lives of workers are extended, sometimes as long as six months, to carry the colony through winter and to start again in spring:
‘The winter bee is a rather different animal from the summer worker, the difference being brought about by feeding and lack of work. In the late August and early September the workers feed very heavily upon pollen, and this brings their hypopharyngeal glands back into the plump form of the young nursing bee. At the same time, a considerable amount of fat, protein and a storage carbohydrate called glycogen, or animal starch, is stored in the fat body. This fat body is an organ composed of a sheet of large storage cells spread along the inside of the dorsal part of the abdomen. It is present in all honeybees, but is considerably enlarged in the winter worker. It provides an internal store of food, which is probably used to start brood rearing in the spring. These physical changes in the worker occur when it is not involved in rearing brood; in fact its lifespan appears to be inversely proportional to the amount of brood food produced and fed to larvae.’
Of course, after all that, the workers will still need good weather and a plentiful flow of nectar to start the season. The apiary’s snowdrops felt like a small ray of hope amid news of storms and floods.
Snowdrops instil a child-like and spring-like feeling in everyone. My mum has a lovely memory of these pretty flowers from when she was six years’ old: ‘When I was six, I thought I was going to hospital to be a nurse, instead they took my tonsils. Afterwards my mum took me home, and she’d put a vase of snowdrops by my bed.’
Hopefully the apiary’s bees will appreciate the snowdrops lying beside the hives as much, during a break in the clouds.
Links of interest:
The Chelsea Physic Garden’s snowdrop theatre opened this weekend and I can highly recommend a visit. There are snowdrops, tours and, of course, delicious afternoon tea and cake in the Tangerine Dream Café. Emily and I visited for a honey tasting a couple of years back, and really enjoyed the Garden.
Blogs to read:
If only British beekeeper Ted Hooper MBE (1918–2010) were alive to share his experience and words of wisdom through blogging. Well, I’ve found the next best thing – Professor Simon Leather, entomologist and blogger! His blog Don’t Forget the Roundabouts shares stories and teaches on things of entomological interest, urban ecology and conservation, and there’s quite a bit about aphids. I really like his recent post: It’s a Wonderful Life – an Inordinate Fondness for Insects. You can also follow on Twitter @EntoProf.
Thanks for the links. It’s funny how one’s attitude can change. I must admit I thought entomologists were all a bit strange but the more I discover about insects the more fascinating they become but it has been bees that have woken up my senses.
Wish I’d know at school that there was even such a job as entomology! I was always fascinated although, like you, the bees have re-awoken my senses. Is it the more fascinated we become in insects the stranger we become? Probably!
Wow, that’s a worrying thought!
We are watching ours closely just now. I wish the weather would be more straightforward.
The weather seems very straightforward at the moment – rain, rain, rain! Fingers crossed we have a good summer ahead – good luck with your bees!
Thanks. We’ve got two established locations and are starting a third in the spring. So then we will have two top bar hives and one regular box hive. It’s exciting!
I really like the named queens idea. Ironically we try not to name our other livestock as they are not pets. But I can see a different aspect for the bees that it instills higher regard for the work of the colony.
It’s been upsetting when I’ve had to dethrone a queen, but… naming the queen is also like naming the hive and so we know which hive we’re talking about!
I think it’s a good strategy! Thanks
I like it. I suspect it’ll be easy. We have an African style top bar give so that’s the African queen, the allotment hive is by the train so it has to be Bobbie from the railway children. Our latest hive has no bees yet. So I’ll wait on that.
John’s Christmas pudding hat was amazing! Love the crocuses photo, you have really brought out the colours.
Thank goodness you stopped me from trampling them!
Enjoyed that, EST. Good luck with the hives this Spring. I’ve found a place on Abaco that is selling honey, so we’ll have a look-see next month – and indeed an unscrew-taste – and maybe take some photos of the hives. Most of the bees on the island are wild, so I’m excited to have found a honey producer. RH
That is exciting news RH! I’d really like to read some posts about wild Abaco bees and about wild Abaco beekeepers too! EST