When weather and forage are synchronised, what happens in our apiaries is amazing, writes Ethel Irvine of Fermanagh Beekeepers’ Association in her latest bee report.

Our precious grass verges and rough grasslands have, amongst a myriad of other flowers commonly called ‘weeds’, masses of a meadow-sweet plant which, while not a spectacular flower, is one which releases quantities of lime-green pollen and nectar, while hedgerows have brambles in flower against a background of spikes of rosebay willowherb, with its dark blue-green pollen.

Closer inspection reveals stubby white clover, which will produce nectar when the temperature reaches approximately 18C.

Evidence of such abundance is seen in our hives where bees have been carrying in nectar, which is placed in the first empty cells the house bees find, often in the brood nests, because at least some of the queens will have temporarily cut back on the number of eggs they are laying.

Honeybees can carry up to 40mg of nectar in their honey sacs, which means that to bring in 4g, they have to make 1,000 journeys to their chosen foraging spot!

This does not mean 4g of honey, because the nectar has a high water content which must be reduced as part of the honey-making process. For context, a teaspoon of honey has a mass of around 10g!

The Lakeland Queen Rearing Group continues to meet in the FBKA Apiary. Grafting of very young larvae from the Native Irish Honeybee Society queen continues, with some members proving themselves more adept than others, and the Nicot system of obtaining larvae was very successful the second time it was used.

Between meetings, a swarm had moved into a bait hive and, as the photograph shows, had built what is known as wild comb, showing their approval of their new home.

They were transferred to a new brood box with a full complement of frames.

The work of the group has been made much more straightforward thanks to the Apiary Manager, Emma Irwin, and her assistant, James Irwin.

Fermanagh Beekeepers’ Association was represented at the SEFF Allotment Open Day by Stewart Hey, Noel McAllister and Lorraine Wild, on a day which was not always friendly to open air work, but they were able to highlight the importance of honeybees as pollinators in all gardens, and had some of the excellent Fermanagh honey and other hive products for sale.

Many thanks to David Bolton for the following report on the Wild Bee Project, in which he reminds us of its purpose and updates us on the progress.

In 2018, Fermanagh Beekeepers’ Association placed its first manufactured honey bee box in a tree near Tempo.

Within weeks, the box was occupied by a swarm which survived until the following winter.

Over the course of the following two years or so, a further 15 boxes were made and placed in woodlands across the county – including one on a densely-wooded island on Lower Lough Erne.

Since the project started, seven boxes have been home to swarms, and currently six boxes are occupied.

As we might expect, colonies have survived for different lengths of time as they would do in the wild, depending on the weather and on how well they have been able to accumulate sufficient stores of honey and pollen to get them through the winter.

One box has been continuously occupied since the spring of 2019 when a swarm moved in only 11 days after it was put in place.

Once in place, the boxes are not touched and the bees, when they occupy a box, are left to themselves. Therefore, no honey is removed from the boxes, and it would be rather hard to do so, given that most are 20 or more feet up in trees!

The project was created to help restore the population of wild honey bees, following the collapse of our local wild honey bee population when the deadly parasite, Varroa destructor, came to this part of the world about 25 years ago.

The parasite has spread across the world from its natural home in Asia, where it lives alongside and without endangering the Asiatic species of honey bee.

However, the European bee had not evolved to live with the parasite, so its arrival was a major threat for both those colonies managed by beekeepers and the wild population.

Recent research demonstrates how valuable our native honey bee population is.

The bee boxes were designed based on the research of Professor Tom Seeley from New York State, who has spent a lifetime researching wild honey bees and with whom the Fermanagh beekeepers have ongoing contact.

The boxes were built by Association members and by the Enniskillen Men’s Shed.

They have been placed in National Trust woods at Florencecourt and Crom, at Tempo Manor, on an island on Lough Erne as already noted, and on local farms and gardens.

Some of the boxes include sensors which record the temperature and humidity. Using this information, it is possible to say when a swarm moves in, how well it is doing, when a virgin queen takes flight to mate, and when a swarm moves out or dies.

The equipment needed to carry out this work has been funded by a number of sources, including the Eva Crane Trust, The Lough Erne Landscape Partnership, and Live Here Love Here. 

The honey bee is just one of a wide range of pollinators upon whom nature relies to transfer pollen from one flower to another, to produce flowers and fruit.

Others include butterflies, of whom we are seeing more in recent weeks, bumble bees and solitary bees, hoverflies and other important if less well known pollinators. All have their part to play.

In the landscape in which we live in Fermanagh – where we have no mono crops such as rape seed – it is important we achieve a balance of all of the pollinators.

For this reason, the Fermanagh Beekeepers try to ensure that apiaries contain only a small number of hives that allows room for other pollinating insects to live off the local flowers.  

The project has one other aim. Our wild honey bee population eventually recovered after Varroa came.

This was achieved by the wild honey bees adapting to the parasite – even without any human intervention.

The colonies that survive in the long term in the wild bee boxes, will provide an important genetic input to both the wild and managed populations.

This will – in the long term – reduce, if not eradicate, the need for beekeepers to use medicines and other forms of management to control Varroa. 

The FBKA (not so annual, due to Covid-19) Annual Honey Show will be held on Sunday, August 28 at Florence Court House and it will be open to the public on the Sunday afternoon and on Monday, August 29.

The Show is open to everyone, and we would ask for as many entries as possible to be submitted.

Our last Show was a record-breaker for entries, and we hope that the two-year break will not halt this growth.

There are classes to suit all, not just for honey and wax producers, but including ‘bee-related’ photographs and handicraft.

Full details of the show schedule can be obtained from the Show Secretary, Avril Campbell; email avekevlin@hotmail.co.uk, or telephone 044 7769 906901.