Deadly spring

As the European Commission votes to implement a two year ban on three pesticides linked to bee deaths around the world, UK beekeepers and their bees are still struggling with the vagaries of the British spring.

Following the coldest March in 50 years, when we had to postpone practical beekeeping class after beekeeping class because you can’t open a hive in sub zero temperatures, the start of April proved little better. Late springs are not unusual, but 2013 has been exceptional because of the unremitting cold.

We have been anxiously feeding our bees fondant in the hope that the nectar substitute would see them through the prolonged chilly spell until warmer weather arrived. Bees can deal with the cold by staying toasty in the hive, but the problem is they can’t get out to collect pollen from the hazel and alder trees whose catkins can provide a rich source of protein at the beginning of spring for the bee larvae.

If there’s no baby food coming in, there’s no point the queen laying eggs because when the eggs hatch into larvae they will go hungry. So, all of our bee colonies are subsequently small and not building up well.

Now nearing May, with the cherry blossom out, forget me nots running a blue riot across the garden and dandelions dotting the lawn yellow, the bees would be having a feast if only that Arctic wind would drop and they could fly more.

Anecdotally, beekeepers are reporting losses of up to 30 percent because of the very late, cold spring. The only silver lining is that smaller bee colonies with less bee larvae means less varroa – the parasite which feeds on the larvae, weakens it and spreads lethal viruses around the hive.

What bees and flowers really need now is a warm May so the bees can leave the hive and pollinate the flowers and in the process collect the pollen they need to feed the babies, and the nectar that they turn into honey.

Matthew Oates a naturalist at the National Trust is optimistic. He says “There is a long record of good summers following late springs. I love a late spring. It’s all the sweeter after a long wait.”

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