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By John Howat
Published: Sunday 19th February, 2006
Updated: Thursday 19th March, 2009
I have seen photos from the States of articulated lorries loaded with beehives being transported hundreds or thousands of miles to almonds or other crops; I have witnessed dozens of smaller lorries loaded with hundreds of hives returning to mainland Greece on the ferry from Thassos in September. We do not operate on that scale in the UK. Sadly, most of the orchards no longer exist due to competition from sunnier countries, and only a handful of bee farmers run more than a few hundred colonies of bees.
We certainly move hives around, but in dozens rather than hundreds. The first event of the year, and the one that most people will think of, will be to the orchards for spring pollination of top fruit – apples, pears, plums, cherries. Before this move the hives will be checked for health and strength, and equalised as necessary – frames of brood and bees moved from very strong colonies and given to weaker colonies to boost them, and frames of capped honey left over from the autumn taken out. The frames removed will be replaced with foundation. This ensures that the orchards get uniformly strong colonies and helps to reduce the chance of swarming. Depending on the size of brood box an empty super may be added; this helps the bees to remain cool during the move and provides space for the gathered nectar.
Once pollination is completed the bees will be moved away from the orchard. Until this year, as soon as the bees were removed the trees would be sprayed with carbaryl which would kill the remaining flowers to prevent over-fruiting; but as this chemical is now banned thinning will be done by hand. Although much more labour-intensive, it means that the best fruit will be left and poorer fruit removed which will give a better quality crop in the autumn. (The orchard manager told me this.)
Simultaneously with top-fruit pollination, other hives will be moved to oil-seed rape (Canola) fields. Bees from the orchards may be returned to their home site or moved to rape. Then on to field beans if none are near by the rape site. It is always necessary to check bees on the rape for swarming – they will almost certainly try. Soft fruits such as strawberries and raspberries require pollination.
Around late June some bees will be moved to borage, which is a fairly new crop for us. The honey is very pale and lightly flavoured but has the advantage of coming in very quickly and copiously, and not granulating.
Finally, at the end of July the bees will be moved to the heather moors for the Ling heather (Erica). They may have been moved in earlier for the bell heather crop, but the thixotropic, strongly flavoured Ling is the most prized. Here, at a time of year when the flow from other plants has finished, the bees will fill the brood box with heather honey – they over-winter very well on that – and may give us some surplus in the supers, although this is by no means guaranteed as it may have been too dry earlier in the year, or the weather may be too cold.
The bees may be moved into winter apiaries with shelter from the worst of the weather and wind, and ideally plenty of early pollen plants around – willow and the like.
There are other specialist crops that are pollinated, for example poppies grown for pharmaceutical purposes, which I have not mentioned. Generally, we get paid for taking hives to orchards, less for soft fruit, nothing for oil-seed rape which can be wind-pollinated although bees give a better quality of seed (but we get plenty of honey), and, in the New Forest at least, we have to pay a small amount for each hive taken to the heather.
For transportation we use either small flatbed lorries, or pick-up with or without trailer, or panel vans – whatever is available. I use my Land Rover 110 pick-up (it’s not a fast vehicle but I can rest assured that it will get me out of almost anything that I carelessly put it into; those orchards can be very wet in the early spring). With a medium sized trailer this gives me a maximum of 38 hives to a move, although I prefer to limit it to around 26, especially when the hives are heavy later in the year. However, most of the trips are not too far, and two, sometimes three, moves can be made in a night if need be.
When to move the bees, evening or morning? Opinion is divided. My preference is for late evening. I spend the day with final inspections and preparations, then have a break while the bees settle down. Then in with the foam entrance blocks, on to the vehicle, and away. Depending on the weather this may be early evening or almost dusk. At the new site the bees are unloaded by moonlight and torch light, the foam partly removed, and home I go. The alternative is to get to the site very early, before the bees are flying, close the entrance and move in daylight.
My reasons for preferring a night move are: The night is cooler so the bees are less likely to overheat, especially if there is any hold-up; traffic is quieter here in the south at night, with the morning rush hour starting soon after five a.m.; if bees escape (and they do) they will stay with the hive – in daylight they will be lost or make a nuisance of themselves when unloading; and I do not have to get up at an unearthly hour. On the other hand it is somewhat easier to unload bees in daylight, and they can be supered more easily.
I’ve often wondered what the reaction would be of an AA patrolman called to a breakdown involving a load of bees at any time of the day or night. I’d rather not find out, really.
After the first move to the orchards I select those colonies which are in best condition with young queens and plenty of emerging brood for future moves. Poorer colonies are left nearer home for attention. The only actual contract I have for a specific number of hives is for the orchard; thereafter I am moving them for a crop of honey and the numbers are flexible within reason. Moving is hard work so there really is no point in expending all that energy for no result. Re-queening or whatever else is needed is much easier at the home apiaries. Heather is an exception where all colonies can go, as they will all put away winter stores so I will not have to feed them (I use jumbo brood boxes and live in the south of England. Beekeepers further north do have to feed for the winter). Any colonies that look in the slightest bit suspicious do not get moved for fear of spreading disease. They also stay where I can keep a close watch on them.
Not all bee farmers in the UK carry out migratory beekeeping. Of those that do, many will limit the amount of moving bees that they do, maybe only visiting the heather or rape. A good many hobbyist beekeepers will move some hives to rape or heather. Whenever I am moving bees, I bring to mind the picture from the States. Of a huge semi loaded with beehives. On it’s side at a major road intersection. Then I drive a little more carefully. I also have a sign on the back of the vehicle reading “Beware, Bees in transit” which I find has much more effect than “Baby on board”.
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