Feel the buzz

Help­ing our strug­gling bee pop­u­la­tions

Sussex Life - - Inside - WORDS: Elisa Rain­ford

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”

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