Here is the text of the latest article for our village magazine. Like the first, second and third articles, the word count limit imposed by the editor makes it quite challenging to pack in enough detail in a manner which is still engaging to the lay audience.
Early Autumn – predators and food stores
Late summer/early autumn is usually a key time for beekeepers to come to the active aid of their bee colonies – helping protect them from predators and assessing/boosting their stores for the oncoming winter.
Wasp season is upon us. These brightly-coloured omnivorous cousins of vegetarian bees will predate upon other insects, which is great for keeping aphids, caterpillars and flies under control, but if they discover a bee colony they will relentlessly raid it: to them it is a sumptuous larder of bees, larvae and honey – and if they get a hold, they’ll devour everything but the wax. So, from early August onwards, beekeepers are hanging up wasp traps, baited with things which wasps like but bees ignore. Wasps love rotting fruit so the smell of fruity alcohol, such as cider, is a great lure especially when combined with jam and a bit of odorous protein such as flakes of fish. In addition, beehive entrances are reduced in size by beekeepers, so the bees can guard them more effectively; and nearby wasp nests destroyed if found.
Wasps only travel 300 yards from home lest they intrude on other wasps’ territory (very different to bees’ range of 3 miles), so if wasps are currently bothering you in your garden, look around and you may spot their nest in, say, a roof space or airbrick. Unlike bees nests which are formed from wax produced by the bees themselves, wasps nests are ‘paper’ made from the wasps chewing up wood – so a wasps nest in a building’s infrastucture may be destructive to, say, the roof joists. Also, wasps starve and turn bad tempered in autumn, so always be wary of wasp nests – calling on a pest control company is the safest way to deal with them.
Another seasonal phenomenon is bees robbing other bees! With the summer flush over, as food becomes more scarce, a large, starving colony can mob, overpower and loot a small one. Starvation is a very real problem this year: the June nectar gap was very pronounced throughout the country, and many colonies are requiring feeding to ensure they have enough fuel to keep warm through winter, even where the beekeper has not harvested any honey. Beekeepers can usually judge whether the hive has enough food by “hefting the hive” to judge its weight. If it feels light, concentrated sugar syrup is cooked-up and fed, in sophisticated feeders such as… an old margarine tub with some straw or sticks in it to stop the bees drowning. Plain sugar lacks the micronutrients of nectar but the addition of a squirt of lemon juice, and boiling it up with nettles, etc. helps, and the bees can process sugar-syrup into a honey, which while not as good as that made from nectar, will tide them over winter.
Apart from protecting bees from wasps and other bees, we also need to take action against mice later in autumn. Mice will not bother an active hive – too dangerous! – but as the bees settle down for over-wintering, mice consider beehives as lovely warm winter houses complete with larders, eating bees and their honey – just one mouse will kill a colony by the Spring. To keep mice out we fit ‘mouse guards’ over entrances, metal strips with small holes allowing the bees to still pass in and out, but too small let hungry mice in.
So, while refilling wasp traps and cooking-up litres of sugar-syrup in my kitchen to help my bees survive the coming winter, I reflect philosophically on how there has not been much of a honey harvest this year – but that’s not why I personally keep bees, I keep them to try to increase their numbers to ensure we continue to have them and for the fascination that studying their lifecycle and habits can bring.