It is only mid September but the honeybees are well into their winter preparation by now. At this time of year there a few priorities for the beekeeper to maximise the chances of the colony surviving through the winter. The first is to ensure that they have built up enough stores of food. Not so much to see them through the winter (when they are mostly dormant and huddled together, expending little energy.) Rather to see them through the early spring when the queen is starting to lay more, the ‘cluster’ is breaking up and yet nectar sources can be notoriously unreliable.
The second priority is to ensure that they are not weakened by an endemic mite, the scourge of beekeepers the world over, the ominously named varroa destructor. In days gone by this wouldn’t have been a consideration and the bees could be left to their own devices. Today varroa is completely unavoidable and will find its way into almost all colonies. Over time it weakens the bees and makes them susceptible to viral infection and the collapse of the colony.
Six on Saturday is a weekly garden diary written by gardeners the world over, hosted over at the ever inspirational propagator blog.
1) Formic acid: 1 Varroa: 0
…so despite my aversion to using chemicals, not treating for varroa isn’t really an option. There are some interesting approaches that are entirely chemical free, for example dusting the bees with icing sugar encourages them to clean each other intensively which reduces the mite burden, but I am not sure this is practical in a large colony. And so there is little option but to use some form of chemical treatment.
Some of these are organic like thymol (derived from thyme) and formic acid (the painful ingredient of bee and ant stings). Just because they are naturally occurring though doesn’t mean they aren’t hugely irritant to bees. Bees are extremely conscious of scent and pheromones in the hive and they absolutely hate having something smelly like this plonked in the middle of the collony. It makes them irritable, behave oddly and sometimes even eject their queen or young bees from the hive. I don’t like doing it (especially seeing a number of dead bees under the hive) it feels like playing God – being responsible for a small number of deaths in order to allow the entire population to survive.
While treating the bees this week we have enjoyed a really pleasant few days of settled weather with light winds and sunshine. It was a joy to see the bees out foraging on ivy at the bottom of the garden. This is one of the few garden plants where you will see honey bees feeding in large numbers. I have cleared a fair bit of this away over the years but am glad to have left some patches as a valuable resource of nectar, pollen and protein (when the berries come) for a host of insects at a time when there is little else about. There is even a species of solitary bee, the ‘ivy bee‘ (which I think occurs in England although not Scotland) that feeds almost entirely on ivy during its short adult flying season from August to October.
3) Not all weeds are bad…
Elsewhere in the garden there is variegated ivy which grows in a slightly footloose and fancy free way over a wooden retaining wall. It is much less aggressive than the wilder English ivy, and very easy to tame. It wasn’t really planted here but seems at home amongst some sedums and is interspersed with the native herb / weed tanacetum or ‘feverfew’. This is one of the most ubiquitous weeds in the garden but also one of the easiest to lift out and I often leave it to flower in places where it seems to look fairly natural.
I had thought about doing a ‘six’ just on butterflies – perhaps next week. I do like the idea of going on a garden safari. Just a couple of minutes looking at a single plant (some asters) was enough to briefly spot three different species happily feeding away..
Late September marks the turning point of the year when it is now dark when I wake up. I am an early riser and usually try and take a stroll round the garden, even just for a couple of minutes’ before going to work. This is one of the last weeks when the sun will be over the horizon when I do this and I feel the need to savour every last drop until it happens again in April…
6) The afterglow
Even if the days are getting shorter, there is still a lot of warmth in the garden. In much the same way that a fire becomes hotter even after the flames have died down. Despite the cooler nights, the scarcity of sunlight and dare I say it perhaps even the first frosts in the next few weeks, there are still many plants which continue to grow, icarus like, up, up, up towards the departing sun.
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