“NEVER look a bee in the eye,” Kettering beekeeper Ray Goodman advised me calmly as one of the creatures in question whizzed past my face, causing me to back away quickly. These, I was sure, were words of wisdom on how to avoid being stung.
Perhaps it is the fact that honeybees can sting (although they rarely do so, unless provoked), which is why so many humans do not care for them. Yet, more importantly, these industrious creatures need more friends than enemies at the moment.
National figures revealed this month showed that a third of honeybees did not survive the winter, following last year’s wash-out summer. And, according to the Northamptonshire Beekeepers’ Association, local figures reflect the same trend, with some losing as many as half of their colonies.
The problems for honeybees have been caused by a variety of factors.
Ray said: “At the moment I have 16 colonies and each one has an average of 40,000 bees. Last winter I went in with 17 colonies and came out with 12. It was a combination of effects. It was an awful summer and the bees weren’t in a good state when they went into winter.”
David White, chairman of the Northamptonshire Beekeepers’ Association, explained: “The fact is that spring is a little late this year, but really we have to look back to last year and appreciate what happened and how this affected the honeybee colonies.
“Apart from a 10-day spell of excellent weather in May, the past 10 and a half months have been at the mercy of bad weather. Torrential rain, high wind, soggy ground conditions, snow, frost and finally very cold easterly winds have prevented the bees from doing what comes naturally.
“Honeybees will fly when temperatures are about 7C but need double digits to start to gather pollen and nectar.
“When the weather is bad, they stay indoors and consume stores they have in reserve.
“Such was the case last summer when beekeepers found it necessary to give their charges a helping hand with copious feeds of sugar water.
“The poor autumn meant bees went into winter in less than optimum condition and just did not survive the long winter.”
Other threats to bees have included the woodpecker.
David explained: “Woody woodpecker, who dines out on a diet of insects, pays attention to any unprotected hives at a time of very cold weather and will drill into the sides of the hives to gain access to a meal. This demoralises the bees and lets the cold into the colony with a potential for total loss.”
Disease can also be an issue. Ray explained: “Honeybees have a serious problem because of varroa, a mite which originated in South East Asia. Since the 1990s it has been here and if left to itself it will almost always kill the colony.”
Modern gardening practices are not always beneficial for bees, according to David.
He said: “I do get concerned that Joe Public do like nice green lawns but we do need some to allow pollen-bearing plants or dandelions to grow on lawns.”
But why should we all be buzzing about the honey bee crisis? The fact is that bees have a vital part to play in pollination and so are important in farming.
David said: “I’m sure that a number of people think the insect world is irrelevant, particularly because they don’t understand what goes on. The world is always on mobile phones, dashing around and switching off from the world that really matters, but that world will keep us sustained.
“Beekeepers are looking after tomorrow’s world in looking after honeybees which are instrumental in pollinating 70 crops across the UK. We have to make sure the bees are fit for purpose.”
Yet there are steps people can take to encourage bees. Nectar and pollen-bearing plants to attract bees include lilac, lime trees, buddleia and horse chestnut.
Time will tell as to whether the plight will lead to a shortage of honey.
David said: “We will have to wait and see.
“Of course there will be plenty of other countries’ honey on the supermarket shelves, a blend of EU and non-EU so the labels say, but somehow it doesn’t taste the same as local honey, at least we know where our bees have been and what they have gathered and frankly nothing tastes better than Northamptonshire honey.”
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The plight of bees in general has been a hot topic of discussion for some years now.
And the high profile given to the debate seems to have helped to boost the number of Northamptonshire beekeepers; people who will spend their spare time actively helping bee populations.
David White, chairman of the Northamptonshire Beekeepers’ Association, said: “We have got 257 beekeepers now, after the press and media coverage of three or four years ago. Back in 2008, beekeepers marched on Parliament as they were concerned about the loss of honeybees and asked MPs for funding for research to see what the problem was. We were successful in getting that funding. Over the past three or four years our numbers have increased substantially, we have doubled the membership in that time.”
Ray Goodman, of Kettering, is one of the association’s members. He advised anyone interested in taking up the hobby to get in touch with the NBKA.
He said: “We run courses every winter for people who want to go into beekeeping. It isn’t something you can just do naturally, you need to talk to people.
“We have an association apiary and people who think they would like to do it can go along and get close to the bees and see what they are like. It isn’t cheap to buy the equipment, a hive will cost about £180.”
To find out more about membership of the NBKA, see www.northantsbees.org.uk.
Bees are unable to forage during the year, resulting in poorly developed colonies and a scarcity of pollen and nectar throughout the season.
There has been more isolation starvation, which happens when bees lose contact with their food reserves during the winter.
Bees cluster closely together to maintain the hive temperatures and consume stores of honey closest to them. Having exhausted stores, they take advantage of warmer weather to move within the hive to fresh stores.
If the weather is too cold for them to move or if the cluster moves and regroups in the wrong direction, the colony can starve.