‘Flaming June’ is a phrase much used to describe the heat and sunshine of the month that's just passed, writes Ethel Irvine, of Fermanagh Beekeepers' Association (FBKA).

I don’t believe that there was even a single day in Fermanagh this year which fitted the 'flaming June' description!

Beekeepers, along with everyone else, waited patiently for the strong cold winds to become the balmy breezes of summer so that our bees could enjoy the flowers and shrubs available at this time of year.

Our expectations are that bees will begin their swarming preparations in time for when the days are long and warm.

Swarming is the bees’ way of reproducing themselves as the old queen leaves the hive, with up to half its population of worker bees, to set up a new home.

The swarm will not leave until a consensus has been reached as to the most suitable site for their new nest.

They leave in the knowledge that their old colony has been provided with the means of survival in the form of a growing queen, in a large cell, which will soon emerge and mate, and produce the numbers of bees to ensure its success, and knowing that they themselves will have ample time to build the comb which forms the nursery in which they can rear brood, and be able gather enough stores to get them safely through the following winter before the autumn rains and frosts come.

However, in spite of giving themselves the best chance possible, less than 25 per cent of swarms survive winter in the wild, according to Emeritus Professor of Biology, Tom Seeley.

In light of these figures, beekeepers should apply swarm control measures as soon as they see well-charged queen cells in their colonies and collect any swarms reported to them, as a service to the bees as well as to the community.

Because of the cooler weather, we were not expecting the usual numbers of swarms, but colonies have been making queen cells (and beekeepers have been responding by applying swarm control measures) at more or less the normal rate.

The next worry is that virgin queens would not be able to fly to mate, but again, this has been shown to not be a problem, as evidenced by the speed of mating of queens from the apideas (very small polystyrene hives holding three small frames and accommodating about 1,000 bees) in use by the Lakeland Queen Rearing group, as well as those in full colonies in our own apiaries.

These facts show the resilience of our native apis mellifera mellifera bees, and their adaption to the often challenging climatic conditions.

There is another factor which underlies the development of our colonies and that is the much discussed June gap.

Colonies cannot grow unless they have a plentiful supply of both nectar and pollen coming into the hives.

The rearing of brood requires copious amounts of pollen, which may already have been stored in the hive, and construction of the wax brood cells needs both heat and honey.

Numerous bees can supply the heat by hanging in dense festoons over the wax foundation, but they will only build wax on nectar which is arriving in the hive daily.

In June, this can be scarce, as all the spring flowering shrubs and trees have already begun to set fruit and the flush of spring flowers is over.

The next major flows would be expected in July from short white clover, which will yield only when the temperature reaches 18C, from bramble with its grey/white pollen, meadow sweet with pale green pollen, and the many other wild flowers in our rich hedgerows.

Interestingly, I have seen both clover and meadow sweet in bloom already, suggesting that plants are maturing earlier. Also, we have picked raspberries in June – a first in 35 years – from our garden.

Does this mean that climate change will move the June gap to earlier in the season?

In Fermanagh, when I started beekeeping in the 1980s, I never noticed the June gap because of the abundance of wild flowers in the maturing hay meadows, small but productive vetches, and other unnoticed flowering plants in hedgerows and the fact that there were no other beekeepers close by.

This has been a busy month for Fermanagh beekeepers. As well as the normal but intensive summer routine of caring for the bees, the association has been taking opportunities to meet the public and talk about honeybees, their life cycle, their products and their contribution to our habitat and the whole environment.

FBKA was represented at the Big Lunch celebrations at Enniskillen Castle, where Secretary, Lorraine Wild, and Chairman, Thomas McCaffrey – with the support of James Irwin – spoke to numerous people, sold honey and wax products such as candles, wax blocks and hand creams and explained what the bees were doing in the observation hive.

The observation hive is always a great attraction as it allows a safe way to see bees at work and, if the queen is co-operative, she will even lay eggs while we look on.

It fascinates children, some of whom returned time after time to look at what was happening behind the glass of the hive.

Later in the month, the Enniskillen Campus of CAFRE invited us to take part in their Open Farm days at the college.

On Friday morning, Brian Dane, Noel McAllister and Ronnie McIntyre spoke to groups of children (about 150 children in total) where they explained the hive and its occupants, what the bees produced and how they made a difference to us by pollinating the plants which produce our food.

Teachers and parents are to be congratulated on the increased awareness which the pupils showed of the importance of pollinators – much more so than, say, 10 years ago.

On Saturday, Lorraine Wild, William Martin, Ian Irwin and Thomas McCaffrey were on duty just outside the apiary site at the college, where there was no danger of visits from the bees in the apiary close by, to visitors, with a greater range of equipment.

They spoke to small groups who had made their way up the hill and were pleased to answer the many penetrating questions from interested people, both adults and children.

The appreciation shown was very rewarding and FBKA are very grateful to those who helped out at these events.

In addition, Thomas – whose firm has a strong environmental commitment – also gave a presentation to a large group of students in Mount Lourdes’ Grammar School which he followed up by discussion of the observation hive.

The end of the month saw the first annual barbecue since 2019 when more than 40 members and friends came to the apiary site to enjoy the traditional burgers, sausages, chicken wings and ribs with onions and peppers cooked by our three chefs, Matt Wild, William Martin and Jorgen Pederson.

Committee members contributed a variety of salads, other side dishes and sweets to add to a fabulous feast.

We were pleased to have John Hill, Chairman of UBKA, and James Ellis, Chairman of Randalstown and District BKA as our guests on what was a very windy but dry day.

Many thanks were expressed to Lorraine Wild, who organised everything with extraordinary efficiency and attention to detail, and to all others who helped out.

We are also grateful to Enniskillen Campus of CAFRE for the apiary site and access to it which allows our activities to flourish.