A Hard Time for Honeybees – and our Wild Bees too

For the first time since we began beekeeping 8 years ago, our Honeybees are showing signs of starvation. At the beginning of July we noticed that they’d begun removing the wax cappings from their Winter honey stores and begun to eat them. Each frame we removed during inspections saw lines of hungry bees head first in the cells, totally ignoring our presence as they ate.

Kersal Vale Honeybees, 2015

Normally at this time of year they’d be busy foraging for pollen and nectar, but they seem to have realised that there’s just not enough about. The effect can be seen on other invertebrates too – each time we open a hive flocks of Bumblebees and Wasps have started appearing too, attracted by the sweet scent of the honey within. Wasps do appear around beehives and try to rob them of honey, but normally this will only happen in early Autumn when flowering plants naturally begin to die back. Bumblebees are normally far too busy with their own bee business to bother beehives, but this year with the lack of food around it seems the smell must be irresistible.

Kersal Vale Honeybee, 2015

Our bees are sited on a large allotment site, where as you can imagine there’s normally a consistent food supply throughout the bee season. The allotmenteers grow a wide variety of plants and so at any point during the season there’s generally something in bloom – but it just doesn’t seem to be enough this year. The flowers seem to be dying back incredibly quickly in the heat and the lack of rain means plants in general are struggling. The apiary itself backs onto the River Irwell, the banks of which at this time of year are normally thick with Himalayan Balsam. This is an invasive species which needs careful management if it isn’t to become a real problem – it spreads like wildfire and outcompetes many native species – but has become an important and reliable food source for insects. It has very shallow roots though, so was an early casualty of the drought. The riverbanks are empty this year.

This means we’re in the unusual position of needing to supplement our bees’ food during the height of Summer. We’ve a few options to use – adding wet supers, frames from which the bulk of the honey has been extracted but which always have some remaining deep in the cells. We’ve also got a couple of buckets of honey which has slightly too high a water content to bottle, so they can have that too. And finally we can feed them with sugar solution, though this is the last option as being essentially pure sugar it isn’t as nutritionally balanced as honey.

Other than feeding we are leaving the bees alone as much as possible – we don’t want to put any unnecessary stress on the colonies. The bees seem to have adopted a low stress, low energy approach to life too, only doing what’s absolutely necessary. For example, there hasn’t been any attempt to swarm like there normally would be when the hot weather began.

Kersal Vale Honeybee covered in Himalayan Balsam pollen, offering her hivemates a taste of the nectar she’s gathered to encourage them to visit the source

So an odd Summer in beekeeping as in the rest of the natural world. And another odd feature to mention – this phenomenon seems to be incredibly localised. Beekeepers in our area are reporting similar issues to ours, but in other parts of the country bees are absolutely booming.

All this being said, I’m not too worried about our honeybees. My main worry is that what this signifies for our local native bees. Our colonies of honeybees will be fine, hopefully – we can feed them. The Solitary and Bumblebees in the area are not so lucky, and not long after noticing what was happening with the honeybees, I started to see problems with them too. We seem to be seeing a much shortened season for them compared to normal – last year I had Leafcutter Bees flying in the garden until September. This year, they emerged at the same point in the Summer but are already gone. At NQ Growboxes, there are far fewer bees than at this point last year. The common issue in all these places is the scorching temperatures and lack of food sources available for the bees.

It remains to be seen what effect this will have had on the local populations of wild bees. I’m hoping that, although the season is shortened this year, they will have had time to complete the breeding cycle. As always with these things though, only time will tell.