|Bee on apple blossom|
I've been very busy with my bees. Like other beekeepers, I've seen my colonies build up quickly in the mild spring and one of them (my favourite colony - the lovely, calm one that doesn't want to sting me) has been thinking about swarming. Generally, this is a bit early in the year for swarms, but the queen has been laying so well - and the bees have expanded so much - that they now want to divide their colony.
|Bee on look-out!|
When I had a peek inside the hive on Easter Monday I saw that they were preparing to raise a new queen - a sure sign that they were just days away from swarming. I knew I had to act fast, otherwise half of my bees would soon be flying off into the sunset. So I've created an 'artificial swarm' i.e. divided the colony myself (and basically tricked the bees into thinking they've swarmed). I would usually reunite the colonies when they've settled down, but I think I'll keep these as two separate colonies. It gives me another hive.
|Creating an area of bee-friendly shrubs (with a beehive on the left, charcoal burner on the right and nesting goose watching it all in the background!)|
I've also been helping my bees by clearing areas for plants that they'll love. The area in the photo above had become a bit overgrown and full of weeds, but I've now cleared it for bee-friendly shrubs (that should eventually crowd out the weeds). I've recently planted Californian lilac, berberis, and chaenomeles to start with (this area won't be for entirely native plants, but all plants will have been grown in British nurseries). Because the hives will be right next to this area, the bees won't have to fly very far for their food.
|Ancient woodland near to my beehives. The bees love to forage on the bluebells.|
While I've been planting for my bees, I've been learning a bit about the nutritional value of their diet from some reading and a lecture I've attended recently. I find this information fascinating and I've enjoyed learning some chemistry and biology again. I gave up studying these two subjects sometime in my mid-teens when I had to choose either arts or sciences at school (I chose arts). I remember I couldn't do a biology and history/English combination together which was a bit frustrating. I really enjoyed biology.
As a beekeeper, my main interest is honeybees, but I'm learning about bumblebees and other bees, too. For example, bumblebees are quite vulnerable to running out of food when they're out flying, apparently they can only fly for about 40 minutes on a full stomach - so it's possible to come across a bumblebee on the ground that's out of energy. When I find a bumblebee like this, I try to revive it by picking it up and placing it on a bee-friendly flower that will provide it with nectar.
I've mentioned before that when honeybees forage for food, they collect both nectar and pollen from flowers. I'm so amazed by how these little creatures organise their colony to collect food. I've recently heard that if foraging bees come back with food that isn't right for the conditions or needs of the hive, the colony just won't accept it. This seems a bit harsh on the poor bee coming back after all that foraging, but then bees are programmed to think with a 'hive mind'.
I'm planting so many bee-friendly flowers this year, but I've learnt that the nectar-flow from them varies all the time depending, for example on the day's temperature, the amount of sunshine, humidity, wind, age and vigour of the plant (which is a good reason to keep my flowers as healthy as possible). Bee-friendly plants that flower in winter are important to help the bees into spring, but I must remember to plant them where they'll receive the maximum amount of sunshine in the short, daylight hours at this time of year. Then they'll be of real benefit to the bees.
I haven't been surprised to learn that it's important for bees to have a varied diet, because it makes such good sense. They've evolved to forage on a range of wildflowers, so it's of concern that today they're often in areas where there are can be a limited source of food e.g. a single arable crop.
|This spring, oilseed rape is growing in nearly all of the fields surrounding the smallholding|
There have been some interesting studies made on bees and single crops like sunflowers and oilseed rape (and in the US, sesame). Bees love sunflowers and oilseed rape, but sunflower pollen, in particular, hasn't been found to be particularly nutritious for them. Its protein content isn't very high. This has to be something for beekeepers to think about in areas where they move their bees to forage on this crop in the summer (like in France).
So this is an (admittedly not very academic) skim through some of the information I've gleaned on bee nutrition. There's plenty of further reading on these subjects that I won't list, but I will just mention Emily Heath's great beekeeping blog and her recent post on nutrition here
I'd love to know which of my plants are the most nutritious for my bees, but as I can't know this, I'll do my best for them by planting a range of bee-friendly flowers on the smallholding and encouraging the spread of wildflowers. This way I hope to give the bees the variety of food they need.