English honeybees suffered badly this winter

The annual survey carried out by the British Beekeepers Association (BBKA) to measure winter survival of honeybees shows that losses almost doubled from the 13% reported in 2016/7 to 25% or a quarter of colonies being lost in 2017/8.
A significant cause of the increased losses was the more severe winter with the so-called Beast from the East bringing snow to many regions in February and a further, very cold, snap with more snow in the middle of March.
This meant there was a very late start to spring this year. This delay in the start of available forage occurred at a time when colonies are at their weakest and that, undoubtedly, was a contributing factor.
Beekeepers even reported that bees were venturing out only to be confined back in their hives due to the late snow.

Contributory factors

Contributory factors included weak colonies going into winter, and queens not being mated properly. Both these were caused by colonies not having a good summer in 2017.
The regional breakdown of losses is contained in the following table. The figures in brackets show the losses in the previous overwinter survey 2016/7.
 

Region Percentage of Losses
Northern 22.9 (15.1)
Western 27.7 (13.5)
North East 18.8 (23.0)
East 24.4 (9.7)
South West 21.7 (12.5)
Southern 35.4 (10.8)
South East 24.0 (14.0)

Survey respondents reported that these high losses were the result of small, weak colonies going into winter, with poor and inadequately mated queens, which resulted in queen failure.
Starvation was also reported as a significant factor as colonies ran out of food or lost contact with their food reserves which is known as isolation starvation. The long winter, lack of early forage was also important.
There is an optimal colony and cluster size (between 10-12,000 bees) which is best capable of surviving long, cold and wet overwinter periods.

Problem was weather

Martin Smith, Director of Communications for BBKA, said “It is not surprising that we have seen increased losses in the last winter. In some parts of the country, spring was almost a month behind the normal timing.
“This reversal of reducing losses over the numbers reported in the previous 4 years can be attributed to weather rather than any other underlying factor and beekeepers and the public should not read anything more into these figures.”
To enable bees to have the best change of surviving over winter it is important that they go into the long, dark days in as healthy condition as they can.
Forage in the late summer and early Autumn is vital and this is something everyone can help with – from farmers not cutting hedges when they are in flower, to park keepers and gardeners planting and nurturing late-flowering plants such as Michaelmas Daises or even Ivy from which honeybees produce a very nutrient-rich honey for their winter stores.

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