Bees in Putley – observations
These are some observations about bees and our most important crop – apples – the facts here may not be correct please feel to challenge as they are drawn from observation not from a deep knowledge of the factors affecting apple blossom development.
If you are a bee Putley is a good place to be a bee!
There are orchards, lots of deciduous woods – every tree is a giant flower they produce pollen or nectar so there is an almost constant source of food for bees during the spring summer and autumn.
The farming in Putley with old orchards and permanent pasture means there are a large number of wild insect pollinators such as bumblebees – these insects carry out a lot of pollination of Putley’s orchards in a good year.
In a commercial orchard in many other parts of the UK growers must organise beekeepers to site their hives in the orchards during blossom or there is a measurable loss of pollination and fruit set.
2012 has been a very different year and has highlighted just how important bees are to one of our main industries – growing apples, pears and plums. The year began with such a warm March that bees were out collecting nectar and pollen very early. The first tree to appear with both is the pussy willow in Feb/March – planting a pussy willow near to a hive helps bees establish in the Spring as they have a ready source of food – nectar gives them just energy and pollen protein and many other nutrients. The early warmth in March and plenty of early flowers woke many bees up from winter early and they began their year. A normal year in Putley begins with willow, then plums, pears, apples, May (hawthorn) and then there is a gap until the clovers in June and bramble appears in July / August. In Putley we have woods full of chestnut trees with flowers out now which helps to bridge the gap.
This year the rain and cold has stopped the bee colonies – both hives and wild – from developing. They could not feed as it was too cold to travel – the bees are dependent on a minimum air temperature to get their muscles working. Wild bees can work at lower temperatures but once the bee reached the flowers they were wet and cold too and had no nectar or pollen. So the wild bees stayed at home and fed on their own earlier stores, stopped feeding their young and stopped the queen from laying eggs. This is why we have seen so few wild or bumble bees this year. They are returning now though.
Honeybees were a little luckier as they may have been fed by the keepers, if so they repaid this by swarming as soon as the weather was a little warmer and then the new queens were not able to mate and resume egg laying in the original hive. This year there will be little English honey as it was not being produced in the main times – May and July.
When the blossom appeared on dessert apple trees it was cold and wet and pollination poor. At the same time the oilseed rape was in flower – the bee’s equivalent of a Big Mac – all the nectar and pollen they can cram in and all easy to get to. The first bees to find rape will indicate to the other bees and they will advance on the field together – flying upto 3 miles back to the hive with their loads. If an apple orchard is in flower at the same time some honey bees will work this but if the weather is poor and they get only an odd few hours of sun then when the bees are hungry and they have young in the hive that need feeding they will be drawn to the rape for easy pickings.
In April I walked with Charles Millar- the regional bee inspector through Dragon Orchard for him to inspect the hive and asked him whether flies and other insects were useful pollinators – he explained that they did pollinate but almost by accident – the honeybee though works with military precision – a large number of bees will descend on an orchard and work it while the trees are producing nectar. We walked by a pear in blossom and it was being worked by bees and it was a bright day 13TH April 2012. The same tree now has a good crop of pears. Other pears nearby – perhaps different varieties have few.
The hive at Dragon Orchard is surrounded by a mixed dessert orchard of many varieties of apples and other top fruit and the fruit set looks good. Many other dessert orchards are poor. The close proximity of other varieties – there are about 40 or 50 different varieties in a small area means that the bees are carrying a wide variety of pollen from one flower to the next. Orchards with pollinators that were all in blossom together appear to have fared well this year.
Most years we rely on nature for pollination in Putley – this year it was not available. This year having hives close to orchard trees appears to have helped the bees pollinate in the short time available between rain showers.
Other factors will have affected the fruit set too – not just bee pollination.
What can we do to help in our gardens? Because bees are having such a bad time – can we please help them by not cutting flowers in lawns and grass if we don’t need to. I cut the churchyard lawn and wish we could save an area for wild flowers and bees. The churchyard would have been cut with a scythe or sickle before lawnmowers and it would have been a much kinder place for wildlife. If you think the churchyard should be allowed an area for wild flowers to grow before being cut back again in July please make your thoughts known to the church wardens. The figures below show just how many flowers are required by bees for pollination. Take a look at your garden – how spoons of honey would a bee make there?
David Pealing – MrPsBees