planting for the beekeeping year
We had a very well attended talk in October by Tony and Ailia Ashworth at the Parish Rooms about how bees had taken over their lives. It started with one or two hives but whilst they still have their day jobs, bees and their upbringing have become their passion.
Autumn is when the beekeeping year starts. It's feeding time for the honeybees ready for the winter. It's also when the honey is at its best quality. Some beekeepers harvest all of the honey for resale but the Ashworth's like to keep some for their bees. To top up the food, thick syrup or sugar fondant is used. For the gardener we need to think about planting high protein foods for when the hives start to become active again. Planting crocus, daphne, snowdrops, flowering red current, hellebore, are all suitable. If possible, mass planting is ideal for the bees as they communicate with the rest of the hive, but avoid planting red flowers as the bees' senses do not pick up the colour so well.
Winter means housekeeping; melting the old wax, repairing the woodwork, getting rid of the dead bees, hefting and introducing sheets of foundation wax as a base layer. Each hive holds about 60,000 bees in 11, or 12 frames and it's important to check the bees have enough food so a constant temperature of 36-37 degrees C can be maintained in the hive. The winter bee is stronger and plumper, has a life span of 4-6 months and with no drones about, the sole purpose of the female is to look after the queen. The common pests are the wax moth lavae that eat the wood and mice that damage the cells.
Spring for the gardener is when we like to see daffodils, but it came as a surprise to everyone to learn that these flowers are poisonous to bees. Other plants to avoid are chrysanthemums and peony because their flower structure is difficult for pollen collection and rhododendron because it produces 'mad honey' with hallucinatory properties.
Summer can be a difficult time for the honeybee as after visiting the spring flowers and some of our lawns with no mow May flora, there is a June gap in nectar. This can be filled with foxgloves, thyme, mint, dandelion, thistles and teasle. Then in full summer ideal pollen and nectar flowers are rudbeckia, viburnum, potentilla, passionflower, dill, sunflowers, and the multi flower varieties such as allium, ladies lace, and even onions that have gone to seed.
Meanwhile the slim summer honeybees with only a 6-week life, live on a high fat low protein diet and must bring water, pollen, and nectar into the hive to service the queen. The queen is identified by her size but for ease of identification is often marked on her back by the beekeeper.
Swarming often happens in summer and you see the colony often hanging from a tree branch or in a bird box, in which case it is best to call a beekeeper to allow the new colony to start under controlled conditions. We finished the talk crammed full of planting ideas and keen to sample some of their produce.
Books on Beekeeping
Practical Beekeeping: Clive de Bruyn; First Lessons in Beekeeping: Keith S Delaplane; The Beekeeper's Problem Solver: James E Tew; Beginning Beekeeping: Tanya Philips; Guide to Bees and Honey: Ted Hooper MBE