Sunday, 7 September 2014

feed the bees

The year is rolling round, and another autumn milestone has been reached, as I'm feeding the bees. They get sugar syrup at this time of year, cooked up in the preserving pan on the Aga.  It is possible to buy ready made syrup, and I think professional beekeepers use it, since otherwise it would be a full time job just dissolving enough sugar.  I'd be happy to use it myself, but there doesn't seem to be a local stockist, and I'm not in a position to buy it by the pallet.  I don't feel I know our local commercial beekeeper quite well enough to ask if he could sell me some, so I'm stuck with making my own.

The ratio for autumn feeding is two pounds of sugar in a pint of water (or at least that's what I remember, and I hope it's right because that's what I've been doing).  Nowadays sugar is packaged by the kilo, and a five kilo bag of granulated makes a preserving pan's worth of syrup.  It must be white sugar.  Bees do not do wholefood, and brown sugar does not agree with them.  Some beekeepers believe that cane sugar is better than beet.  I'm not sure whether it matters, but go for cane sugar in preference when I can get it, so when I called at Tesco on the way back from the Plant Heritage lecture I bought the last four big bags of cane sugar they had left on the shelves.  I wondered how much of the rest had been bought by fellow beekeepers, given that it's a popular hobby nowadays, and cane sugar doesn't get much shelf space.  I've a feeling Tesco ran out last year.  Maybe the surge in demand at bee feeding time comes as a perennial surprise to the management, much as the increased sales of preserving sugar seems to do for the short period when Seville oranges are in season.

It takes quite a long time to dissolve five kilos of sugar, and you have to keep an eye on it as you emphatically do not want it to start caramelising.  Last year a novice beekeeper forgot that she had a pan of syrup on the stove, and sent an anxious email to the Membership Secretary asking whether it was still OK to use for the bees once it had been allowed to boil.  The secretary's advice was to use it for bottling plums, and get some fresh sugar for the bees, but I don't want that many bottled plums.  I am as prone to mission creep as the next person, but starting out to feed your bees and ending up spending two days preserving fruit after conducting a one woman run on plums in Tesco is too much.

The syrup goes in plastic buckets with metal gauze patches in their otherwise watertight lids.  You put the bucket upside down on the crown board of the hive, gauze patch over one of the holes in the board, and the bees come and suck the syrup through the gauze and store it away for winter in the brood box.  In the process they reduce the water content, and modify it as they see fit.  Obviously the supers where they will store surplus honey the beekeeper aims to harvest have to be removed before you give them any syrup, as you don't want sugar ending up in the supers and being taken off in error as honey.  Given that they don't get fed until after the honey harvest this shouldn't happen, but it could do, if you feed bees when there are still supers on the hive.

I would have got some more cooking apples as well in Tesco, so that we could have another blackberry and apple something-or-other while the blackberries are still good, but they'd run out. There were price labels for Bramleys on the shelves, but the space was filled with boxes and boxes of Braeburns.

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