The Plight of the Honey Bee


The consequences of the poor autumn weather followed by a long winter are easily seen by the lack of grass in the fields and the seasons being a month behind. The deaths of livestock due to late snow and the fodder crisis have been all too visible in our national media, but the catastrophic loss of honey bees since February has gone largely unnoticed. Yes we’ve had coverage of Neonicotinoids, their effect on bees and the ensuing ban, but there has been very little mention of the weather related deaths of bees.
There are many reasons for the decline in honey bees and here we are talking about our native honey bee, Apis Melifera Melifera.

Our Bees
Last autumn I had 7 colonies of bees in excellent order and ready for winter.  The first warm day after 14th February I always take a quick look at each colony and give fondant, just in case stores are getting low. All 7 colonies were doing well with plenty of active bees and they were getting ready to increase numbers ready for the spring burst of blossom.

Over the next 2 months it was not possible to open the hives, but I have perspex crown boards on so I can see into the hives without opening them, allowing me to see if they have fondant and if there are bees present, but not much else. So I was able to see that 3 colonies had died off. I could see that there were bees in the other 4 but whenever I went to the apiary I knew that I wasn’t seeing enough bees flying around the hives.

I finally got to open the hives on the May bank holiday weekend, and inspect each colony properly but I really wasn’t prepared for what I found.


Of my seven colonies in Nov 2012, I still had seven by mid February and I was confident that they had made it through winter. But between Feb and now, I have lost three and of the four remaining colonies, one definitely will make it; one should make it and two are very doubtful. I am having to pour inverted sugar directly onto the frames next to the bees and brush it into the cells so that they don’t have to leave the brood nest to feed!

And I am not the only one. But  what has happened? The truth is that nobody really knows and much of the evidence is anecdotal, and therefore has not been scientifically proven. But if we wait for scientific proof, every honey bee in Ireland will be dead. As it is there are probably no wild honey bees left.

Since about 2000 the varroa mite has been a huge issue in Ireland, and has changed beekeeping forever. But we now have this under control and can do so by using a relatively natural product, an extract of the thyme plant called thymol which cause the varroa mites to drop off the bees and frames, and when used in conjunction with open mesh floors, they fall through onto the ground, where they cannot survive.
There are various other diseases of bees including Nosema and American Foul Brood, all of which conspire to make beekeeping more difficult, and the life of wild honey bees (ones that aren’t managed) almost impossible. Some of these diseases come in as spores in imported honey.

Another contributing factor which cannot have escaped anyone’s notice is that we have not really had a proper summer for about the last ten years. We have indeed had periods of warm dry weather, but unless these coincide with a major source of nectar then it is of no significance to honey bees. Just because a plant is in flower does not mean that a bee can get nectar from it. Different flowers yield up their nectar at different temperatures; for clover it needs to be 20ºC and humid! When was the last time we had a day like that?


Perfect Storm
Combine a wet autumn, a long drawn out winter and an east wind driving the arrival of spring back by at least 4 weeks, and you have a real problem. Not only was it too cold for bees to forage, there was nothing to forage on. The flowering of the dandelion was delayed by a month as well. Dandelion is a hughly  important flower: it flowers early, yields nectar at low temperatures and has abundant pollen which is a bees only source of protein.

Worker bees have a short life span. In summer they live about 3 weeks and the ones born in November which have to carry the colony over the winter live about 4 months. Because the arrival of nectar and pollen was so late and because there wasn’t enough stored pollen in the hives, the winter workers started to die off before they were able to replace themselves adequately. So that now we have colonies without enough bees to harvest the bounty that will be available when the whitethorn, chestnut and sycamore come into flower. By the time they build up numbers adequately, we will be into July!

I should be doing swarm inspections every 10 days with the expectation of swarming from June Bank Holiday weekend and the hives full of bees and covering all ten frames. My colonies are so small  that there are only enough bees to cover 2 frames, there are no drones and consequently no chance of swarming. Bees can’t swarm without drones because without drones, which are male, there is nothing to mate with new queens. Drones are only produced in times of plenty; they can’t forage, can’t even feed themselves and are a drain on resources.

This is going to make replacing lost colonies very difficult and very late in the season and that’s if we have a good summer and autumn. If we get weather like last year than we are looking at an absolute disaster.


Oil Seed Rape
I don’t like oil seed rape honey, it’s very high in glucose, very sweet and sets like stone, so I don’t let my bees onto it. It’s not difficult, you just have to make sure there is none within 3 miles!

But it is a huge source of nectar so most beekeepers do. Not only is it a great resource for honey but it’s a great way of getting wax drawn on empty frames. You need to have time and experience, though, because everything happens very quickly. If you don’t extract honey quickly enough it sets in the frame, if you don’t keep a very close eye numbers build up very quickly and you’re into swarming, and if you don’t control that you lose your bees.

Quite apart from all that, there is the risk of insecticides. Having said that, it is only an issue when the crop is in flower, because if it’s not in flower, there won’t be any bees on it. In most instances farmers and beekeepers have an understanding and the farmer will contact the beekeeper the day before spraying and the bees can be closed in for the following day so that there are none on the crop when it is sprayed. If the bees don’t come into contact with the spray they won’t be killed.

The problem with Neonicotinoid seed treatments is that they are systemic, they are in the plant and if their intent is insecticidal, how is it possible that they don’t effect bees?


One member of our association is well known in beekeeping circles as being an authority on honey bees. He has kept them all his life, and it’s fair to say, bees and their welfare are an obsession. He hosts all our workshops and demonstrations, and never stops thinking and researching about how to improve beekeeping.
He does not lose bees….. ever, not even by accident! He takes it personally if even one bee is accidently squashed during a demonstration.
This year, he has lost more colonies than he has in total over the last ten years. If someone with this much experience and knowledge loses 60% of his bees, what hope is there for the rest of us!

And if the weather doesn’t improve this year……well, let’s not go there.

How can you help?
There is huge concern out there for the plight of our bees. My tweet about the theft of bees from a local keeper was read far and wide. We got calls from local and national newpapers as well as local and national radio!

Small things can help:
Plant a corner of your garden with plants bees like, such as borage, but particularly ones that flower early or late in the season.
Don’t mow your dandelions early in the season or at least until the chestnut flowers!
Don’t kill bees. If you have a swarm, call a local beekeeper.
Become a beekeeper!
Accept that anecdotal evidence may have to be sufficient, because if we wait for scientific proof, it may be too late.

Our Honey
We will have no honey this year!

Photos from the Orchard

In a rare 20 minutes of sunshine, I took the camera out to the orchard last Saturday to take some photos of the apple blossom.

The two James Grieves were bursting with blossom, and were buzzing with honey bees and bumble bees!

A rare sight this year, and I mean the blue sky not the bee! Our honey bees were taking full advantage,

and were collecting pollen and nectar from the blossom.


Notice the apple pollen on its back legs.

Pollen is the only protein available to bees and they can’t rear brood without it.

Once they’re loaded up it’s back to the hive with their precious cargo.

Not forgetting the humble bumble who was also busy in his work!










After about twenty minutes it clouded over and started to rain again.

The weather has been so poor that I have been feeding the bees all spring! I have supers on the hives, but the only reason they are on is to give the bees more room and hopefully prevent swarming until a bit later in the summer. Just by the by, when the supers are on, I feed them Fondant which they don’t store and which they only use when they need.

>Summer’s Bounty


It’s that time of year again, and we have an abundance of produce!
We always plant a few potatoes, these are Roosters, and it’s impossible to beat freshly dug, boiled potatoes with a dab of butter.
Mange Tout are in full swing and cook really well steamed over the aforementioned potatoes.
Blackcurrants are also on the go and Helen has been busy making jelly as well as lots of summer puddings!
Helen also makes homemade Ribena using a Darina Allen recipe which is absolutely delicious and freezes really well.
 Our earliest plums have just come ripe and Helen has made a wonderful jam this year which is really good on toast for breakfast and is also goes well with Moonshine Dairies organic natural yogurt.
 The clover and blackberry seems to have yielded really well for our bees. This is some brace comb that I cut off one of the supers, packed with honey and our first taste of this years harvest. Eating it is a bit primative and is a case of biting off chunks, savouring the honey and spitting out the wax. Once the initial frenzy has worn off, it’s really good spread on buttery toast!

>Honey Bees (Apis Mellifera)

>The weather is wonderful, and for the first time in about eight years it is coinciding with an abundance of blossom from which ours bees can get ample supplies of nectar and pollen. So far it has been a great year for bees, acres of dandelions which yields nectar at low temperatures and plenty of pollen from Pussy Willow etc gave them a great chance to build up numbers over the last month or so and now the hives are bursting with bees and they are taking full advantage of the opportunity, and so am I!

The Horse Chestnuts and Sycamores are both in flower… is this tree in the orchard, an ideas as to what it is?
It’s a Quince and sorry to go all flowery again but they really are spectacular.

Our native apples are also in flower…..
…and indeed this Ecklinville Seedling is only just about to start.

The only real way to tell what blossom the bees are working if you don’t actually see them on it, is by the colour of the pollen, and in this case it looks like Sycamore. There is also brick red pollen going in which  means they are also working Chestnut.
As you can see there are lots of bees in this hive, and these are probably only the house bees since the photo was taken on a warm sunny day (yesterday) and all the flying bees are out foraging.
You may notice a drawing pin on a frame on the LHS of the photo. There is also one that you can’t see on the RHS, these mark the extent of the brood nest at the last inspection and in this hive there are 15 sides of brood which means that the colony is building up really well and could do with more room. It’s time for a ‘super’ and we’ll hopefully get some honey.

‘Supers’ on and fingers crossed for some honey. The whitethorn is about to flower so if the weather holds we should get a good crop.
The tall hive on the left is the strongest, and has already supplied 2 frames of capped brood to the colony on the right which was wintered as a ‘Nuc’, thereby allowing it to build up more quickly. Not only that but it has a second brood box on because I wanted to get some frames drawn, and they have drawn 5 frames in 4 days. Busy Bees!

We are members of the Midland Beekeepers Association  whose help and training has been invaluable. If you are interested in beekeeping it’s important to find a local association for help and advice particular to your area.

>Spring Photos

>Ok, ok, I admit the whole job’s going a bit flowery but it is Spring and I’m allowed! Anyway, a few late nights lambing and I should be back to normal!

Bull Rush seed head, an interesting shape!
 Pussy Willow. This one was full of bumble bees making a tremendous racket as they went about their work. Our honey bees are also on pussy willow although I didn’t see any in this tree, but there is lots of bright yellow pollen going into the hives.
The damsons in the orchard are also in flower!
Despise ye not the humble dandelion for it is a very important plant for bees. There is lots of pollen this time of year, but very little nectar available to honey bees, and dandelions provide the first significant source of the season and equally importantly, they yield up their nectar at low temperatures!

Our whitethorn hedge, planted 2 years ago and doing well, plus one of my favourite tree the Scots Pine, not yet magnificent but it will be some day. Interesting thing about whitethorn is that it flowers on last years growth, so if you clip it every year it can’t flower!

>Extracting Honey

>We thought that a few quotes from ‘Pooh’s Little Instruction Book’ might be appropriate:
“When you go after honey with a balloon, the great thing is not to let the bees know you’re coming”
“When carrying a jar of honey to give to a friend, don’t stop and eat it along the way.”

We have been keeping bees now for about 5 years. It has been a very steep learning curve and indeed would not have been possible without the help of the Midland Beekeepers Association and Jim Donohoe in particular. Disease, weather conditions and man have all conspired to make it very difficult to keep bees. For the past number of years it has been a case of trying to keep colony numbers up, rather than trying to produce honey.
This year, however, we had about 2 ‘supers’ of honey to extract. It is mostly clover honey, which would be our favourite!

A frame of honey ready for extraction. We uncap the frames using an electric paint stripper! sounds a bit vicious but it works and is much less messy than uncapping with a knife.
It works because our native bees leave an air space between the honey in the cell and the wax cap, so you can melt the cap off without damaging the honey!
We use National Supers which contain 10 frames. When the Super is on the hive there is a queen excluder underneath so that the queen cannot get in to lay, so that only honey is stored.
The extractor takes 3 frames which are spun around, in this case manually,
and centrifugal force flings the honey out of the cells.
The honey is then drawn off through the tap at the bottom.
It really should go though a strainer and be allowed to settle before being put into jars, but this is for our own consumption, and is delicious just as it is!
The colour and consistency of this honey would suggest to me that it is clover.
I’m sure Winnie-the-Pooh would approve. An essential part of anything to do with honey is regular sampling, just in case… and because…
Always be aware of how many pots of honey you have in the cupboard; it’s nice to be able to say, “I’ve got fourteen pots of honey left.” Or fifteen as the case may be.”
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