Friday 25 April 2014

A Healthy Diet for Bees

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.

Monday 7 April 2014

Spring Tales


Like every other gardener, I'm frantically sowing seeds, planting, weeding and digging at the moment.  There just aren't enough hours in the day at this time of year! So I'm very busy - but not too busy to notice all sorts of activity taking place in the nearby hedges and trees. While I'm gardening, all the birds are singing, pairing up, nesting and raising young. I often stop what I'm doing to take a closer look, especially when I can hear or see the summer birds back again after the winter, like the Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps. Every few days I hear a new song.  It can't be that long, now, until the Swallows and Cuckoos are here, too.

There seem to be lots of mini-dramas taking place in the hedgerows as the birds start their new families. The Song Thrushes are an example. I like to think there's a heated debate going on here, perhaps about this year's nest...

In some areas of the smallholding, nests have already been built. In a box on a fence, a pair of Robins are nesting. I put the box up a while ago now, and it's so hidden by ivy and clematis, that I'd forgotten all about it.  But they found it...

The young Robins in the nest are already making a noise, so the parents are busy feeding, going backwards and forwards. This isn't a good photo, but I didn't want to disturb them too much and they were obviously bothered by me watching them with the camera, so I took one quick shot and left them in peace...

Sadly, it seems that some pairing up hasn't taken place. There's now a solitary Hare in the local fields, so I haven't seen any boxing this year...

Most of my walks are in the local wood, because the wood anemones are covering the ground - and the first bluebells are coming out.  It's starting to look magical in there.

There are spring butterflies in the glades...

And because it's spring, it's time for a haircut.  Here is before...

and after...

I can see Harry's eyes again! I hadn't seen them properly for weeks.

So, it is wonderful to see all the local wildlife in spring - except for these...

I wish there weren't so many pairs of Rabbits. I had surrounded one of my flower patches with chicken wire to protect my flowers from them.  But over the years this became entangled with grass and weeds, so it began to look terrible and I took it out. After this, it wasn't long before the Rabbits moved in and helped themselves to the flowers.  I'm going to try spraying Tabasco sauce around the edge of the patch as a repellent.  Otherwise I'll have to put in another kind of fence...