Spring beekeeping is all about preparation. We try to give the bees a bit of a head start by feeding sugar and protein.
Mother nature’s first offering for the bees is Pussy Willow which is found in the hedgerows and road side verges. Pussy Willow is very important to our bees and once we see the pollen coming in we know the season has really started.
The first major source of nectar is the Dandelions. This honey is delicious and the wax in the comb has a beautiful deep yellow tinge. We usually leave the dandelion honey on the hives for the bees so they can build up their strength ready for the summer honey production.
Here in North Devon we generally just collect honey from summer flowers, although this is not always the case.
Late spring and early summer are spent replenishing the winter losses. As the years have past winter losses have increased. When Paddy was a young man (many years ago) 5-10% losses were the norm. These days Paddy’s son Ian expects about 20%. The reason for this is the introduction to the UK of a parasitic mite called varroa.
Colonies losses are replenished by making small hives from the strong ones. Splits are made by dividing large colonies into two smaller ones and allowing the queenless half to rear a new queen from the eggs laid by the original queen (who is in the other half). Nucs (nucleus hives) are made by taking frames of bees and brood from a number of hives and placing them in a new hive. A specially reared queen is added to the nuc to complete it.
July is the most important honey production month for us in North Devon. Our bees forage on the wild flowers of the endless hedgerows and grazing fields. Our most important summer flowers are white clover and brambles. Other significant contributions come from rosebay willow herb, thistles and buddleia.
At the end of July is our first honey harvest. This job is particularly gruelling but the harder it is the more honey we have so we can’t complain about it.
Hive Migration to Exmoor
The clover finishes near the end of July and North Devon has nothing more to offer our bees. Fortunately Exmoor is very close and has plenty to offer; many square miles of heather. The heather begins as the clover ends so it is all hands on deck to get all 1500 hives up to the moors as quickly as possible.
The beekeepers work through the night transporting the hives on trailers behind two tractors and a land rover. We move around 200 hives per night. Hives are always transported at night so the bees are in the hives when they are moved. Moving a colony of bees during the day means leaving some of the workforce behind, especially if the weather is good.
Driving back across Exmoor at sunrise is a magical experience, the views alone on a misty morning will take your breath away. Plus there are the animals: ponies; deer; buzzards; merlins and kestrels to name a few.
Over the years we have used many different vehicles to dray the hives. Land Rovers have always played a big part.
Then we moved on to tractors and trailers which enabled us to carry more hives per vehicle and even did some of the lifting for us.
These days we have an even easier method. The hives are permanently palletised four per pallet and the pallets are loaded onto trailers using a land rover defender with a forklift on the back.