The Myth of Honey Surplus
After thirty years of having bees in England and a further seventeen in Greece, plus having read about ‘the good and bad honey years’ by many eminent beekeepers, I have come to the conclusion that in reality, the so-called enormous honey ‘surpluses’ produced by bees are a myth. From their earliest days with keeping bees, beginner beekeepers are reminded that good beekeeping practice is to take only ‘surplus’ honey from colonies and leave the bees with enough to overwinter. However, by doing so, the beekeeper is focused on one season of beekeeping at a time – and doesn’t go beyond that. This is a big mistake, for the colony must not be regarded in an annual way but as a living superorganism that can exist indefinitely. Whilst the beekeeper may leave in the hive the stores they need for winter, a cool or late spring, or poor summers, will mean that the bees will have to be fed then, most likely with sugar in some form, which is not the most suitable food for them.
When called out to remove feral bees from nests in roofs, hollow trees or any other place where they set up their home, beekeepers are mostly surprised at the huge stores of honey found in the colonies. Often the colonies have been in those locations for many years and their longevity is undoubtedly due in part, if not mostly, to the stores that they have accumulated, precious food which will be needed during poor seasons.
I live in a wonderful part of Greece. The flowers in spring are unbelievable in their number of species and the enormous amounts of land that they cover. It really looks like a paradise for bees. However, the average honey ‘surplus’ per colony from bees in a static apiary is just 9 kg; that is the amount of honey usually harvested by a beekeeper when the honey flow stops. If the honey isn’t removed at that time, the colonies will consume it during the drought that follows, until forage becomes available again in October.
Most beekeepers that I know have to replace the amount of honey taken from a colony with the same amount of sugar syrup or the one kilo bags of fondant. This is true also of those who move their colonies in the hope of obtaining better yields. Interestingly, the main source of honey in Greece is honeydew from the pines and firs, over 65% of Greek honey production. However, moving bees to the forests isn’t always beneficial to the bees for there is most often no ground flora for pollen, and unless the bees have substantial stores of it brood rearing becomes an enormous problem.
Whilst I am obviously writing in general terms, and perhaps more applicably to Europe than other parts of the world, it is easy for a beekeeper to look at a few years beekeeping and compare honey yields with food supplied to colonies, as well as the number which died of starvation, to get a realistic picture.
Whilst it is true that in many arable areas huge yields can often be taken from oil seed rape, for example, mostly in spring, sometimes there are few sources of forage after this for bees. When I was faced with having to deal with oil seed rape honey, I gave up trying to harvest it before the honey set. I left the supers on the hives with the idea of then removing any surplus in winter when bees would have naturally left the topmost supers. I was frequently surprised by how much honey the bees had already consumed, and perhaps leaving the rest in place would have helped them during the following spring or poor summer.
The Use of Plastic in Beekeeping
I have a great deal of empathy with Funny Schütt’s comments regarding her visit as a beginner beekeeper to the National Honey Show. What used to be a very simple rural craft, particularly for hobbyists, where just a colony, veil, maybe gloves, a hive tool and a smoker could get you by, also perhaps by hiring the association honey extractor, now the craft and industry has an ever-increasing number of goods that can be obtained from the numerous appliance dealers. I can understand her incredulity.
Of course, the dealers have their own businesses to run and they themselves, as well as the purchasers, will benefit from the wider range of goods they have for sale. However, apart from the more technical machinery needed by commercial beekeepers, I often wonder just how much equipment the ordinary beekeeper needs.
Funny’s views on plastic struck me as being particularly important. It seems odd that a very natural pastime and occupation like beekeeping should generate enormous amount of plastic, some of it ‘single use’, that will inevitably end up as waste, adding to the enormous problem the planet is having with this substance.
I have cut out the use of plastic completely in my beekeeping, and, though sent a Flow Hive to try out, I am rather pleased that the bees have decided not to have anything to do with the plastic combs. No matter how I have tried to induce them to use the frames, all attempts have failed over two seasons. I found the same with the Rotary Hive, produced some years ago in Hungary, which was meant to solve the problem of varroa. The bees refused to build on the plastic even though the base of the foundation was given a veneer of beeswax.
I was very pleased to see that Thornes had some cork insulation that could be put in the outer frames to help with the insulation of hives in winter. A good move. Far better than surrounding the cluster with polystyrene roofing material.
Whilst it is a very important that beekeepers are increasingly moving towards a regime of treatment-free beekeeping, to allow the colonies to develop a natural resistance to varroa mites, I do believe that we should not have a poor view of those beekeepers who, for various reasons, are not following their example.
It takes a great deal of courage to take this step and it is very easy for many colonies to be lost. Should a beekeeper wish to start on this path, I would recommend that a few colonies to begin with, those which have achieved low mite populations, are set aside in another apiary and, if success is achieved, to breed from these. Of course, chemical-free treatment is a must and fortunately there are many natural methods of combating varroa that can be employed.
John Phipps, January 2017