Guidelines for Beehives in Community Orchards
Common Ground Advice Note 24
Catherine Simmonds for Common Ground
Catherine is a bee keeper and a poet. Her latest book is We have heard Ravens – poems drawn from Dorothy Wordsworth’s Journals (Flagon Press, 2008)
If members of the community or orchard group want to begin beekeeping in their orchard themselves, their local Bee Keepers Association will have details of suitable beginners courses: www.britishbee.org.uk/local_associations_about_us.php
Beekeeping start up costs can be quite high, well made hives and protective clothing are important. Bee health requires some degree of careful management in the current climate so it pays to know exactly what risks and challenges you are going to face. Extraction of honey requires yet more equipment, although if you are a member of your local BKA they often have extractors and other useful but expensive bits of kit to lend out. If a group of people want to undertake care of the bees together, it may benefit to have one person elected as the overall apiary manager as even routine care of bees does require a certain amount of forethought and decisions have to be made on a week by week basis about colony strength, swarm prevention, re-queening, feeding and constant Varroa management. Make friends with a more experienced beekeeper who can be brought in if there is doubt about how to proceed.
If members wish to invite an established beekeeper to keep bees in the orchard, again the local BKA will be able to help. This has the advantages of not incurring start up costs, having someone experienced managing the bees where there haven’t been bees kept before and if the hives don’t work out well – either for public access reasons or from an orchard management point of view (grass cutting, livestock etc) then the bees can be taken away again. Having an established beekeeper on site should also make it easier and safer for interested parties to come and have a look and learn about the care of bees and their requirements. For orchard managers therefore it is very important to match their site with a beekeeper who takes the care and safety of their bees and the safety of the public seriously. Swarming can be a nuisance if the bees aren’t routinely observed during the swarming season (March – August).
A beekeeper bringing hives into an orchard will select the position for their hives according to a range of factors, but the following information from a New South Wales Agriculture website: www.dpi.nsw.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0019/117109/bee-cherry-plum-pollination.pdf contains a range of points worth bearing in mind when thinking about your orchard as a home for bees:
Temperature is very important to bee activity. Hive placement in an orchard will dictate the level of activity of the colony and also the degree of adequate pollination achieved. Hives should be located in an elevated position in a warm sunny area, protected from the prevailing wind. This will ensure maximum bee activity. In wet and cold conditions bees will only forage short distances from their hives. In orchards larger than 20 ha it may be desirable to place bees in more than one location. Placing hives in threes and fours, up to 20 per site, is acceptable. Remember, when hives are placed in small numbers this creates considerable extra work for the beekeeper. Recent research has indicated that groups of 20–30 hives located at warm locations in and around the orchard increases cross-pollination if correct strength colonies are used for the prevailing climate. From a beekeeper’s viewpoint, all-weather truck access is highly desirable. Orchardists can expect to pay more for the hiring of bees to have them scattered about the orchard.
Hives should not be placed within 100 m of gates, lanes, stock troughs and sheds due to the amount of flight activity from those hives and comfort of people and livestock.
Hives should not be placed in long rows, for example along a fence line. This leads to increased drifting (bees returning to the wrong hive) and leads to non-uniform colony strength, particularly with a large number of hives. Irregular layout patterns are best with the hives spaced apart and facing different directions. It is important when planning the orchard to remember that, where spacing of trees across rows is greater than along, the bees will tend to work along rather than across the rows.
In general, the introduction of pollinators should be made when sufficient blossom is already in evidence to encourage bees to start working it right away. Once foraging has begun, bees will show a marked fidelity to the chosen species and may stay on the blossom for a considerable time. On the other hand, should the bees be installed earlier it is probable they will search for other sources of nectar. Should they succeed, some are likely to become ‘fixed’ on these sources instead of fruit blossom.
Bee Activity and Climate
Temperature and rainfall have a marked effect on honeybee activity. At temperatures below 13°C honeybee flight activity will virtually cease. Between 13°C and 19°C activity increases sharply; above 19°C it tends to reach a relatively constant high level. Colony strength is directly related to the temperature at which bees forage.
Only strong colonies fly any distance at low temperatures. With rainfall, flight activity ceases. Under showery conditions bees will fly between showers but only for very short distances — up to about 150 metres. Optimum conditions for pollen release are temperatures of 20°C and over and humidity of 70% or less. Low temperatures and high humidities have the double effect of reducing bee activity and slowing the release of pollen from the fruit blossom. Wind, particularly strong wind, tends to reduce the ground speed of bees and hence reduce the number of flights per day.
Temperature, humidity and wind all affect the quantity and sugar concentration of nectar and, as a result, the flowers’ attractiveness to bees.
If hives are to be kept in the orchard all year round (rather than brought in for pollination and then removed again) then forage over and above the apple blossom season needs to be considered. Early sources of pollen are important during late February and early March to feed the build up of brood in the hive. Traditional sources of early pollen in the UK come from willows, hazels and some maples. It may be possible to build these trees into orchard boundaries and planting. Some species are better for bees than others. The British Bee Keepers Association www.britishbee.org.uk publish lists of suitable trees and shrubs as well as flowers known to be of food value to bees. The earliest nectar sources, useful to replace depleted winter stores, come from dandelions, white and purple deadnettle, wallflowers and vetch. Once garden plants are also in bloom, nectar sources become more plentiful for the bees, although it is worth remembering that local trees will also be valuable and prolific nectar sources: these include blackthorns, maples, red horse-chestnut, lime and crab apples. Bramble is a great source of nectar in the later summer. Agricultural crops can be influential: oil seed rape, field beans, white clover but some agricultural land can also be of no use at all: e.g. cereals, silage grass (where meadow flowers have been eliminated). Oil seed rape crops often flower at the same time as orchards come into bloom. Their presence locally can be a nuisance as colonies quickly learn to exploit the prolific nectar of the rape and ignore the blossom. In any area there will be times when a particular area suffers from poor forage but being aware of what is within foraging distance (roughly 5km) of your hives will help you predict shortages, and maybe rough patches or boundaries within the orchard can be cultivated with bee forage of the kinds that may have become scarce on more heavily managed land. Having good forage close to the hives e.g.: bramble, dandelion, rosebay willow herb will help the bees during unsettled weather as they can make short trips out between showers. They won’t undertake longer foraging trips in these kinds of conditions. Ivy is very useful to bees as it flowers in late September and provides bees with nectar stores for the winter. So if you have it in hedges and climbing up walls or in hedgerow trees don’t remove it.
Many pesticides and weed killers are toxic to bees and pollinators. Never spray weeds when they are flowering. The management of orchard pests and diseases should always take account of the health and vulnerability of its pollinators.
The British Beekeepers Association (BBKA) works to promote bees and beekeeping: www.britishbee.org.uk. Contact the General Secretary, BBKA, The National Beekeeping Centre, National Agricultural Centre, Stoneleigh Park, Warwickshire CV8 2LG. Tel: 02476 696679. Contact them for swarm help.
Bees, fruit pollination and some current issues affecting bee health
Other community orchard advice notes:
Produce: what to look for
Sources of funding