At the start of the year I was looking after a colony at work and a colony at home. Both had over-wintered well and came into spring without the need for feeding. They expanded well and although I became anxious as the cold weather carried on so late into spring, they managed admirably.
At work there is a field next door and I suspected the emerging crop was rape seed as it indeed turned out to be. At the same time as the news was full of neonicotinoid controversy – would they ban it, wouldn’t they? – I was watching the adjacent field turn fluorescent yellow.
I knew the crop would have been treated with a neonicotinoid, a ‘systemic’ pesticide that works by sending its poison through the liquid transport system of the plant. I began to watch nervously to see if the bees were visiting, and if they were returning to the hive.
The poison works on insects’ nervous systems and reportedly interferes with honey bees’ navigation systems so that they can’t find their way home. In fact I saw very little evidence of my bees visiting the rape which is odd as they are known to favour this crop. It isn’t that easy to see where they go however and I could only monitor the area close to the field edge.
Soon after the flowering peak I observed a general decrease in numbers of bees exiting and returning to the hive. I wondered if they had swarmed but couldn’t be sure one way or the other. All I could do was watch to see if pollen was going into the hive (a sign that brood is being produced) and hope that if they had swarmed the new queen had successfully mated and would be producing new brood as quickly as she could.
Unfortunately that wasn’t the case and the hive failed. I managed to extract some honey but it’s scant compensation for what had appeared to be a thriving colony of bees. I continue to wonder why they failed and can’t be sure if the rape was the cause or at least contributory. The irony is that neo-nicotinoids will not be allowed in next year’s crops but it’s too late for my bees. Or could they have swarmed and the virgin queen not managed a successful mating flight?
The bees at home, I’m delighted (if a little wood-touchy) to say, are doing really well. No feeding or medication for 2 years and three National boxes that I can’t lift a millimetre it’s so heavy with honey. I’m going to leave them their food – they need it more than I do.