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Caithness Field Club

Caithness Field Club Bulletin
1978 - October

D. Furneaux

The only species of the genus Apis which concerns the beekeeper is A. mellifica (or mellifera) that is honey bearer or honey maker. The reason for this is that this species has quite a unique method of passing the Winter. Other insects either hibernate in a mass, as do some ants, or else perish with the exception of the pregnant females, which hibernate individually. A. mellifica lay up a store of honey during Summer and cluster in a dense mass upon that hoard during the Winter, and survive by maintaining the heat of their cluster by assimilating the honey. It is this fact that gives this insect its economical value to mankind, for the storing instinct is diverted to our advantage, and we supply our tables with the honey which our bees have stored for their Winter support. It must also not be overlooked that in earlier times, the prime economic importance of the honey bee was as a producer of wax which was in great demand for the manufacture of candles.

The original habitat of A. mellifica was Europe, as far east as the Caucasus, and the countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea. From Europe it had been taken by settlers to America, where it was called by the North American Indian the white man's fly, to Australia and New Zealand. In each of these countries large honey producing industries have been well established and in recent years China has become a major exporter of honey too.

The bees' most important role in nature is that of a pollinator, and the pollinating efficiency of A. mellifica is increased by a tendency to confine its activity to one type of blossom during a foraging sortie. As other forms of insect life are being eliminated by spraying and agricultural methods are becoming more intensive, the pollinating function of the honey bee is becoming economically more important.

Perhaps the type of accommodation most people associate with the bee is the straw dome-type structure called a skep. Although skeps have not been used for many years by practical beekeepers we get our early impressions from the often delightful illustrations in children's books, and these are sometimes later reinforced by the illustrations on honey jar labels. Skeps were undoubtedly used from very early times and overlapped the introduction of the moveable frame hive in the latter half of the last century until well into the 1920s.

In Caithness slabs would be set on edge to enclose the three sides of a square, the open side facing South. A flat topped skep would be set on a slab within the enclosure. A thin stone slab with a central hole would be set on skep with the hole in line with a corresponding hole in the top of the skep. On the slab would be set a second skep which would act as an extension in which comb would be built and honey stored (honey is always stored above the brood nest). When towards the end of the year the colony contracted to the lower chamber the top skep containing honey would be removed. (This was probably the latest and most advanced form, of skep bee-keeping.) It had been the custom in other parts of the country to provide only one skep per colony. This would become overcrowded and the bees would swarm. The swarm containing the old queen and the older foraging bees would be caught and put in another skep. At the end of the season, provided the swarm issued early enough, it would contain largely combs of honey. A hole would be dug in the ground, some sulphur ignited in it and the skep held over the fumes. The bees would be killed and fail from the combs.

What are the requirements of beekeepers in Caithness and do their bees meet these requirements? Beekeeping in Caithness is quite different from other parts of the country. On warm days in February further south bees could start working on massed blooms of blackthorn in thickets and hedgerows. Early dandelions followed by the succession of fruits and trees bring us to May where a variety of other flowers bring us to the end of the month. We have then arrived at the June gap: the first two weeks in June in which there is a nectar dearth however favourable the weather. From the second week in June to the end of the second week in July is the time of the honey flow in which a surplus may be stored provided suitable weather attains. After the second week in July bees will forage but no surplus is obtained unless the bees are transported to the heather, in which case a heather honey flow might be obtained anytime between the second week in August and the second week in September. On returning from the heather the bees usually remain active well into October end maybe November in a mild Autumn.

From the foregoing it can be concluded that an industrious beekeeper could take his bees to a commercial orchard where the colony stores might be given a boost and the beekeepers coffers certainly will from the pollination fees he will charge. The bees will be returned to their home apiary in plenty of time for the main honey flow in June. At the end of the main honey flow extracted combs can be returned to the hive for cleaning and colonies prepared by requeening etc. for transport to the heather. On return from, the heather there is ample time to remove any honey crop and start feeding and generally settling bees for the Winter. During late May and early June strong colonies can be used to raise queen cells from grafted grubs in artificial cell cups without diminishing the potential of the colony as a honey producer. The ripe cells can be removed and placed in very small queenless colonies where the queens will emerge and later mate. These small queenless colonies are formed by shaking a small number of nurse bees - about a breakfast cup full from a honey producing colony and such a small withdrawal of nurse bees in no way affects its efficiency. It is usual to place hives to the leeward side of trees or a hedgerow and the type of operations described can be carried out most days during the active season for bees, that is from April into September.

The situation in Caithness is very different. There are not any early blossoming trees worthy of mention. Dandelions, always a good source of early nectar, are as abundant as elsewhere but a cold wind often keeps bees inside. Sycamore must be a great boon to the lucky few and later on wild raspberries are great source of nectar but there are hardly sufficient to constitute a honey flow. It is not until the onset of white clover that things really get going. The extractable honey surplus is predominantly clover honey and I believe this to be uniquely Caithnessian as far as Great Britain is concerned. This clover is the wild variety growing in the sheepfolds and on any marginal ground. Over many centuries a strain must have developed that produces nectar at lower temperatures than the same variety in the South. The actual honey flow from this clover takes place between the second week in July and the second week in August, that is a month later than in the South of England. The heather honey flow however takes place between the second week in August and the second week in September, that is during the same period as in the South and immediately following the local clover flow. Consequently there is insufficient time to remove the clover honey and prepare colonies for transporting bees to the heather. Bees, incidentally become angry when their hard earned winter provisions are removed and are best left for a 'settling down' period. Thus it could transpire that the best of the heather honey flow could be missed by a delayed arrival of the colonies. It is always convenient of course to take late developing colonies to the heather, by which is meant colonies that have not grown to sufficient strength to produce a clover honey surplus. This could best be described as consolation beekeeping.

Yet another factor peculiar to Caithness is the very short Autumn. Bees should be removed from the heather at mid-September and the heather crop, if any, removed after settling bees at their home apiary. Winter supplementary feeding should then commence and time must be allowed for the sugar syrup to be converted into a honey and the cells capped. This cannot be done efficiently at low temperatures and too often early October has already heralded the Caithness Winter.

Heather honey is from ling heather and it differs from that of any other source. It has quite a distinct taste which is not to everyone's liking. Once however the taste is acquired, too much can never be quite enough. It is a thixiotropic gel by which is meant its normal state is gelatinous but will liquify if agitated. It is impossible to extract with the centrifugal extractor and any heather honey sold in a jar has been obtained by wrapping the combs in cheese cloth and squeezing in a press. This honey, if genuine heather honey, should contain many air bubbles (there is an EEC regulation for the size of these bubbles in honey offered for sale). Heather honey is therefore more often sold as comb honey. This honey or rather the bees reaction to it is also unique. When working a heavy flow from other sources bees are always on their most placid behaviour, when working a heavy flow from heather however they can be most spiteful. A loud buzzing can be heard but not a bee can be seen anywhere. Closer inspection however will reveal bees walking and climbing from floret to floret. Perhaps in the end their six feet will kill them. Heather honey also has a marked effect on the bees digestive system: it builds up more waste products in their intestines. If the bee cannot leave the hive for a cleansing flight on a warm, day in Winter, dysentery may then ensue. This cleansing flight becomes particularly necessary in February: again a Caithness hazard. It may come as no surprise to learn however that bees bred over a period of time in the vicinity of heather build up some digestive tolerance to it.

What are the ideal characteristics of a honey bee for commercial exploitation in Caithness? The Caithness bee should be able to survive a long Winter confinement; a Winter that if not too hostile for us humans is certainly hostile for bees. It should not try to forage early in the year but should start expanding its brood nest with the previous years stores, i.e. the queen should not require the stimulation of an early flow. The build up of the brood nest should be slower than that of Southern bees but the longevity of the bee should be greater to offset this. The brood nest should reach a peak in mid July and ideally this peak should be maintained over a comparatively long period, by which I mean into September. Contraction should be fairly rapid. In addition the bee should be a strong flyer, tolerant of low temperatures and of heather honey in its digestive tract.

The characteristics mentioned above are the survival characteristics of a native bee which are developed over generations by some colonies if left undisturbed. I have no information on how the acarine disease* of the 1920s affected Caithness, but once restocked, as far as bees are concerned Caithness is almost an island unto itself and with a static population of bees and beekeepers a strain peculiar to the district would have developed. In recent years the situation has been reversed. First there was an influx of people from all over the United Kingdom. From these and indeed from the indigenous population were recruited many beekeepers. Where do the bees come from to supply the needs of this ever growing fad? I have described earlier the difficulties of multiplying colonies in Caithness on an economical basis and it is obvious they cannot come from within the county itself. The most popular source at present seems to be the South of France. In that very warm climate bees will breed throughout most of the year, they will have prolific queens producing very populous colonies. Some of these bees will be shaken into a wire gauze cage and a separately raised queen set amongst them. These units are known as package bees and can be dispatched on any journey that does not take much longer than a week. Caithness is thus reverting to the situation of Great Britain after the acarine plague. At what rate this influx will settle, what characteristics the crosses with the local bees will have and how this will affect the future of beekeeping in Caithness, time alone will tell.

* Author's Note
During the 1920s a disease appeared amongst the bees in Britain. It was first observed in the Isle of Wight and from there spread throughout the country and few colonies survived.

Eventually the disease which had come to be known as the Isle of Wight Disease was found to be caused by a mite or mites entering the tracheae or breathing tubes of the bee and there multiplying until the tracheae became so infested that the bee became starved of oxygen. The mite was named Acarapis Woodi after the man named Woods who discovered it and the disease itself was called Acarine.

See Also
Bumble Bees
Olrig And District Beekeepers Association
Bee Lnks
Phacelia From Field Club Bulletin 2003
This tall blue weed is Phacelia tanacetifolia, which has been given the English name "Phacelia"; it is a native of California. It is currently spreading across British farms and is also planted by beekeepers to provide bee food.
Phacelia (Phacelia tanacetifolia)
is an annual plant, native to California and introduced to Britain in seed mixtures sold to farms, and in special seed mixes designed to suit bees. It is closely related to the Borage family. It has bright blue flowers in a curved "scorpoid". It propagates by seed in its native land.

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