Feel the buzz
Helping our struggling bee populations
One-third of the food we eat would not be available to us were it not for pollinators, of which honeybees are a key group. In the UK, about 70 crops rely on or benefit from pollination. However, over the past few years the health of the UK honeybee population has been a subject of real concern. Loss of habitat, the destruction of colonies by disease, and the uncertainty regarding the impact of pesticides have all affected the honeybee. This year honeybees have had to contend with the extreme weather conditions the UK has been experiencing, with temperatures plummeting to –10°c during the ‘The Beast from the East’ and soaring to 33°c this summer.
In this year’s winter annual survey carried out by the British Beekeepers Association (BBKA) to measure winter survival of honeybees, the results showed that losses almost doubled from the 13 per cent reported in 2016–2017 to 25 per cent of colonies being lost in 2017–2018.
Early spring is an especially important time for honeybees, as they are working hard feeding the brood that has been developing since mid-january, and they rely on blossom for good early sources of pollen; the open, bowl shape of the flowers makes them easily accessible. For some parts of the country, spring this year was almost a month behind its normal timing, causing a delay in spring blossom and fruit trees flowering – with the prolonged cold and wet weather to blame. While there are many other spring-flowering shrubs and trees, it’s generally the flowers of fruit trees belonging to the Rosaceae family, including apples, cherries, peaches and pears, which are referred to as blossoms – the flowers that precede the fruit. The delay in available forage occurred at a time when hives are at their weakest, a contributing factor to the losses.
Alongside the late blossom, starvation was also reported to be a significant factor as colonies lost contact with their food reserves. The cold weather caused the honeybees to cluster in their hives and not move towards the food reserves, a situation that is known as isolation starvation.
Ahead of the BBKA Adopt a Beehive summer updates, there have been a number of reports of improved colonies due to the warmer weather. John Hobrough, a beekeeper located in the north east, reported that the presence of phacelia in nearby fields has had a positive impact on his hive life. Phacelia is a member of the borage family and is one of the ten best nectar producers known.
If you want to give honeybees a helping hand next spring but don’t have room for an entire orchard, fruit trees can be grown in small spaces. Most fruit trees are grafted onto rootstocks, which control their size and vigour, so why not have a go at growing an early blossoming crab apple tree to give the bees a head start?
“This year honeybees have also had to contend with the extreme weather conditions the UK has been experiencing”