HONEY bees are great, they pollinate most of our garden plants and fruit trees, without them the world’s crops would struggle – it’s not a myth.
They produce honey and let us take it from them. They produce propolis, a resinous glue-like substance which they use to stuff up gaps in the hive and which can have anti-fungal and antibiotic properties not just for them but for us as well.
Even better than all that, bees can also be trained to ‘sniff out’ explosives! Bees are incredibly complex and, as a colony, intelligent.
When not on bomb disposal duty, bees are quite gentle and although beekeepers do get stung, a passing honeybee or two in your garden is very unlikely to sting you unless you go out of your way to annoy it. A honeybee dies if it stings, so it is in its best interests to keep itself to itself.
Beekeepers across Northumberland are beginning to stir, just as their bees, which have been cosying down and over-wintering in their hives, are beginning to sense the lengthening days and might be appearing at their front door to take some early spring flights.
Winter is the quiet time for beekeepers, the queen stops laying in autumn and the winter bees settle in a brood ball, keeping warm and waiting to burst into action in the spring. The beekeeper’s task is to make sure the bees have enough food stores and to help their bees stay healthy.
Last winter, when the hives were covered in a few feet of snow, I spent some time clearing and shading the entrance of the hive from the snow, in case a bee might have mistaken the sun reflecting on the snow as an invitation to fly in what would have been deadly cold.
This year I have been constantly checking that the food stores have been adequate and, when not, I have supplemented their own supplies with fondant, delicious slabs of sugar candy that the bees can take instead of honey.
Despite the odd cold snap, I have seen the bees flying throughout the winter and even on Christmas Eve, a worry because I want my bees to stay indoors and not fly about using up energy and stores.
Healthy bees make for strong colonies so I have been keeping an eye of the number of varroa mites – a tick-like mite that can seriously harm a bee colony – and treating the hives to reduce mite numbers.
As we enter March, hopefully the crocus and winter aconite will be blooming and giving the bees an early pollen and protein source for the brood.
The bees will also be leaving the hive on cleansing flights and beekeepers will be breathing a sigh of relief that the bees have survived another winter and waiting anxiously for the queen to start laying this year’s eggs, which will lead to a strong colony to pollinate our gardens, bring home the nectar and, of course, produce our honey.
With a little bit of training and enough space you can keep bees.
Join a club and you can learn through visits to an association apiary.
Further information can be found at Alnwick and District Beekeepers Association – www.bbka.org.uk/local/alnwick