Stewart Gould, vice chair of SBKA, reflects on a year which has seen an average honey harvest in Somerset totalling a very healthy 35-40 lb per colony while a very few beekeepers had a truly fabulous season with between 150 and 200 lb per colony. Perhaps better still, many of us have more colonies going into winter than at the start of the season.
"The beekeeping season of 2018 was coloured by the preceding year. 2017 started with a warm and dry spring which allowed the colonies of bees to build up their numbers very quickly. Unfortunately, the weather tuned cool and damp in June, meaning that all those bees couldn’t find enough food to feed all those extra mouths. I, for one, was feeding my bees through June of 2017. Honey is all about nectar flow, and conditions have to be just right – too much moisture or wind and the nectar will be washed out of the flowers, or the wind will blow blossom away: too little moisture and there won’t be a nectar flow. 2017 wasn’t a bad year weather wise, it was just not quite good enough at key points. In 2016 I harvested 350 lbs of honey from 7 production hives, but in 2017 I had only 35 lbs to show for my labours.
As a consequence of 2017’s ‘iffy’ summer, many beekeepers were taking weakened or reduced numbers of colonies into the winter. Whereas I had run 9 colonies (7 production) through 2017, my numbers were reduced to a total of 6 as we headed for the cooler months. They weathered the winter well, and all was going well until Easter Monday, April 2nd, when out of the blue it snowed. The effect of this blast of cold air so early in the new season was that some colonies, already low on stores, succumbed to isolation starvation. They had food in the hives, but it was too cold for them to break the cluster and go to the other side of the hive for food. They chose warmth over nourishment, and paid the price. More beekeepers suffered late winter losses than they have for a long period of time.
Going into the new 2018 season the situation was something of a ‘Curate’s egg’ – good in parts. Many beekeepers spent the summer building up their colony numbers and bolstering those which hadn’t fared too well during the winter, but those whose bees were strong at the end of 2017, and who managed to get them all through the blast of the ‘Beast from the East’ were off to a great start, especially if they keep their bees where there is a good spring harvest from oilseed rape, field beans and the like. The apple blossom was prolific this year too, and hawthorn played a significant role for a change. The ever faithful blackberry, which normally has a long flowering season, was affected by the prolonged dry spell, and flowered well, but quickly went to seed. They were, unusually, ripening and good to pick in mid July.
All in all, a mixed bag of blessings. Nobody had as bad a year as 2017, and those whose bees were recovering managed to produce slightly better than average crops, but those whose bees were good to go from the start of 2018, had a bumper year. I have heard reports of well over 100 lbs of honey from single hives, from many beekeepers, and even new beekeepers in their first full year have had a reasonable crop – oh! And the bees all seem to be going into this coming winter in much better shape."