I was fortunate enough to spend an hour or so with John Chapple this weekend. Some people draw inspiration from the teachings of Zen masters, others are beholden to the Twitter feeds of potty-mouthed celebrities, but there’s nothing I find more rewarding than hob-nobbing with JC (the illustrious initials are a mere coincidence, I assure you) over a cup of tea. That’s because John is a super-nice guy and one of the UK’s most respected beekeepers. A rare combination.Our conversation kicked off on a simple beekeeping truth: that you never know quite what you’re going to find when you lift the lid on a bee-hive. John said that on-the-spot problem solving was the cornerstone of his enjoyment of beekeeping. Of course, he pointed out, you have to know enough about bees to understand what the problem actually is before you set to finding a solution.
I remarked that my first stab at solving a beekeeping conundrum was always a complex one – the real trick was always to find the simple solution which lies hidden beneath the complicated one.
The discussion took a more serious turn when we assessed the 2014 beekeeping season. No doubt that 2014 has been a great year so far. Bee colonies have built up quickly and, properly invigilated, have been healthy and productive. That’s because Spring came early and stayed put. Here in the last week of May, the whole of nature is about a month ahead of schedule. That’s good news – and potentially bad news, too.
In particular, John noticed last week that some varieties of lime tree are coming into bud, in preparation for flowering. That usually happens in London in July. For my bees, as for many bees in urban environments across northern Europe (Paris and Berlin, to name a couple), lime is a huge component of the summer honey harvest. So it is an important marker of how far the forage wheel has turned. John is concerned that a precocious flow of nectar will lead to a bumper early summer in 2014, with plentiful honey and abundant bees – and then we may, quite simply, run out of road. Like a cartoon character pedalling hell for leather having run off a cliff edge, the bees will have nowhere to go but down.
If his fears turn out to be correct, we beekeepers face a major management problem: when our colonies are strong and food sources fail, hunger could be only days away. And believe me, there is no sadder sight in the bee-world than a starved hive: each bee motionless, head-down in the wax cell in a effort to ingest the last lick of honey.
London beekeepers are fortunate: the diversity of our urban flora normally provides year-round resources for honeybees. Parks, railway lines, gardens, trees, clover, wildflowers all contribute to a truly cosmopolitan mix, in true London style. But that also means that beekeepers in London are poorly prepared for any failure of the forage system. Country beekeepers are more aware of the ebb and flow of forage in their vicinity, often a true boom and bust situation. But if London’s forage cannot bridge the gap between a bountiful Spring and a lush Autumn, I suspect that a lot of urban beekeepers will be stranded, their populous colonies ambushed by starvation.
As beekeepers, we will have a judgment to make next month. Do we take the full supers of delicious, health-boosting honey for ourselves, spin and filter the honey, ripen and jar it, label it and sell it? If we do, we will have to replace swiftly it with cheaper sugar syrup to ensure that the bees do not have an empty larder.
Alternatively, we could let the bees consume the honey which they have created from their own industry and dedication, remaining vigilant in case even this would not be sufficient to tide them over until the heather and ivy nectars emerge in late Summer and Autumn.
Right now, this is nothing but gentle theorising over tea and biscuits. But there is an amber light flashing. In little over a month’s time, we could be facing a stark choice.