The Devil’s In The Detail

Borage 2
Bee On Borage

The BBKA report on 2014’s honey yields (from over 2,000 respondents nationwide) puts the average yield/hive at 32lbs. All well and good. The BBKA also credited the excellent weather conditions in 2014 and improving husbandry skills of beekeepers for the 4lbs/hive increase from 2013’s 28lbs/hive. Fine.

But the fact that 2014’s yield falls well short of the historic average honey yield/hive of 40lbs begs a question: in a great year for weather and assisted by improved management skills, how come honey yields were still 20% below the historic average ?

There are two possible explanations. The first is that the BBKA’s assertions are incorrect. Well, there was certainly favourable weather for all of nature in the UK in 2014, so let’s take that as read. Improved husbandry skills ? BBKA’s survey also reported that only 58% of responding beekeepers attended any form of training with their local beekeeping association. Which means that a staggering 42% of beekeepers did not. And when you put that number next to the 2011 BBKA survey – in which 44% of respondents had been beekeepers for just 1-2 years – then there will be a sizeable subset of beekeepers with less than 5 years’ experience who are not seeking further training. Perhaps that is one reason why yields fell short of the historic average: in reality, husbandry skills may not be adequate to forestall crop-reducing events like swarming. And the survey also revealed that more than a third of respondents (35%) reported “early swarming” in their “Unusual Behaviour” observations. Sounds to me like inexperienced beekeepers lost a lot of honey to swarms which they did not expect, given the early build-up of colonies in 2014. So that’s a question mark against “improved husbandry”.

There is another variable, however, which the BBKA does not mention: forage. Bees need to eat. The dramatic increase in inexperienced beekeepers has been accompanied by a significant jump in the number of hives. More bees require incremental food supplies.

Amongst urban beekeepers, it is recognized that forage is a finite resource. For my part, I have personally arranged large-scale plantings of forage in local parks and have lobbied the Council to procure more pollinator-friendly plants for its green spaces and to reduce the frequency of mowing. But these are only gradually incremental to the expansion of available forage. The impact of added hives on demand for forage is immediate. In an ideal world, beekeepers introducing a new hive should either (a) make provision for forage in advance of the hive being introduced or (b) only introduce a new hive if another local hive is removed. I believe that adequate forage provision is the cornerstone of successful beekeeping, since healthy bees with good temperament and low disease loads can only thrive when they have sufficient food on offer.

And each hive requires a surprising amount of food: Bee authority, Dr Karin Alton, stated in 2013 that: “Our calculations indicate that each new hive placed in London would need the equivalent of one hectare of borage, a plant that attracts mainly honey bees, or over eight hectares of lavender”. It’s a rhetorical question, but how many spare hectares can any London beekeeper rustle up within a 3-mile radius of their hives ?

To focus on specifics: the government’s Beebase website indicates that there are 621 Apiary sites registered with within a 10-kilometre radius of my Bermondsey Street hives. As a guide, it is generally accepted that each apiary comprises 4 hives on average and that 25% of apiaries are not registered with Defra. Using those data, it is likely that there are already >3100 bee hives competing for food resources around my area. Assuming 50,000 bees per hive at the summer peak, that rounds out at 155 million hungry bees !

So the proliferation of beehives in London without an equivalent increase in forage availability has an inevitable mathematical effect: lowered honey yields, as bees compete for food. So given what was observed in 2014, an excellent year for forage, I am not looking forward to reading the BBKA’s survey after a poor weather year, when colony losses through starvation and disease will be far more of a problem for beekeepers than “early swarming”.

We should strive to raise awareness amongst beekeepers, local authorities, companies and the general public that forage is the key issue confronting London beekeepers today. And while we’re at it, from a practical perspective, here are my top 10 smaller-scale favorites for London garden planting:

  • Crocus                  Great Spring starter
  • Aster                     For vivid colour
  • Russian Sage       Preferred to culinary sage
  • Borage                  All summer long
  • Catnip                   A handy “filler” of space
  • Lavender              Classic sun-seeker
  • Alyssum                Low-profile, compact annual
  • Rosemary             Multi-purpose herb
  • Forget-Me-Not   Great in combination
  • Stonecrop            An undemanding sedum

Here’s my call to action to urban beekeepers – let’s get more forage in the ground !

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