Posted 9th Aug 2012
Behind eating an enjoyable slice of bread and honey is a whole year of work – for both the bees and the beekeeper. Orlando Clarke finds working with his bees a therapeutic contrast to everyday life
The day's first rays of sunlight shine gently through the branches in the garden in Colchester, as Orlando Clarke opens the back door to begin his day. As he heads for the hives, he watches a fox making his way through the back fence.
"Mornings are a good time to work on the beehive. The bees are still lethargic then and lifting the heavy boxes is also easier when the air is cool," says the beekeeper with a grin. He puts on his protective clothing. It consists of a white beekeeper's overalls and a hat with a veil - a net that protects the whole of the head. Finally Orlando dons the gauntlet-like gloves which he uses when doing extensive work. By doing this, Orlando is protected against being stung - unless a bee happens to find its way through the clothing. He then prepares the smoker, whose smoke will further calm the bees.
The diligent insects are active all year long and do not hibernate. However, from autumn when the cooler weather is drawing in, they gather themselves together into a winter cluster, where, among other things, the bees generate warmth by gently vibrating their wing muscles. The outer, colder insects always rotate with those resting on the inside. The beekeeper generally checks the box only once during this time. He may also have to treat the bees to protect against the dreaded Varroa mite. The bees keep themselves and their hive clean. They use the first pollen, which mainly comes from willow trees, to rear the eggs that have been laid by the queen. By the end of March, all bees from the winter generation will have died and spring bees appear in their place. Because these bees work around the clock to serve the queen, their life expectancy is very short at around five to six weeks. Some winter bees will last for six months.
The beekeeper's intense work also starts now. All honeycombs are checked weekly to see if new queens are being raised in a special, peanut-shaped, queen cell. If the beekeeper discovers these, he removes them. "You want to prevent swarming. The old queen would fly away and take most of the current bees with her - that means less honey for the beekeeper," explains Orlando. In April and May his bees mainly collect pollen from the apple, pear and cherry trees that blossom in the surrounding area but they also work cotoneaster and other plants. He harvests this honey in mid June. The second harvest, towards the end of August, produces honey that has a darker colour and a spicier taste from the garden herbs. After this, the colonies are treated again to protect against Varroa mite and fed with sugar fondant in place of the honey the beekeeper has left in the brood box. In September Orlando reduces the entrance holes and he hangs a grille in front of the entrance in October to protect against mice. Then everything is ready for winter.
But right now it is nice and warm for the bee-lover. He has to add some more super boxes to the hive to provide additional frames for the bees to store their honey. "I'm finished for today," says Orlando. In contrast, his bees will only have finished their hard day's work once dusk falls.
Read the rest of this feature on p.90 of the July/August 2012 issue...
By Kate Smith