Janet Queen

A taste of honey

‘I will speak about the celestial gift of honey from the air. First, look for a site for your apiary…where no wind can enter…where no sheep leap about the flowers…and let the bright coloured lizard with the scaly back keep away from the hives…but let there be clear springs nearby, and a little stream running through the grass…and let green rosemary and thyme flower around them…’. Virgil’s poetry from 29 BC shows that some of the facts, and mysteries, concerning bees and beekeeping have undergone very little change over the centuries.


Carlisle Beekeepers Association, the largest Cumbrian branch of the British Beekeepers Association, was established in 1931. It aims to promote beekeeping and bee health, and it offers help to local beekeepers by providing information and advice on these subjects. “We have over 70 members,” says Syd Parker, “and we seem to be attracting more each year. This is surprising when you consider that, looking at it geographically, the north of Cumbria must be the worst place in England for keeping bees. Technically, the summers can be too wet and too cold. It surprises a lot of people when they are told that London is one of the best places for bees! However, the bees still manage to produce good amounts of honey even though our season can be very short in Cumbria. The first pollen and nectar is collected by the bees from snowdrops and crocus, mainly in domestic gardens, but beekeepers are always looking for what we call the ‘major nectar flows’, and the first of those is produced by dandelion flowers and the flowers on sycamore trees. At the same time, willow trees provide pollen which bees collect as a source of protein to feed to the developing bees in the hive which are still young grubs and are not yet fully formed. They mix the willow pollen with some honey to make food for the grubs. Later in spring, the blossom on fruit trees, especially apples, is a good source of both pollen and nectar. Horse chestnut trees in full bloom in May are also attractive to the bees.”

Syd, who has been looking after bees for 26 years, and another member of the Carlisle Beekeepers’ Association, Pete Nanson, tend several colonies of bees in the locality. Over the past three years, they have also established an apiary at Rose Castle garden, near Dalston, where they now have six colonies of bees. “Hedgerows around this rural area provide an excellent source of nectar and pollen, including lots of dandelion and hawthorn blossom in spring, and then later in summer there is clover blossom on the road sides and also the flowers on lime trees,” says Pete. He adds, “It used to be the case that the major nectar flows for our bees ceased after the third week of July, but the flowers of Himalayan balsam, the pernicious weed that has fairly recently started to invade our river banks and the sides of becks, are providing a new, later source. Bees love the flowers, and it has to be said that, although the plant is an invader and receives such bad press, Himalayan balsam honey is delicious.”

There are several garden plants that also help to prolong the honey-making season. Sunflowers, often not in full bloom until the second half of July, yield fairly high amounts of both nectar and pollen, and other herbaceous perennials such as Echinops, Solidago, Sedum and Agastache are attractive to honey bees and bumblebees as summer is fading. Ivy is one of the last sources of nectar for bees – if you look closely at the tiny, insignificant flowers on a mature ivy plant in September or October, you can see individual droplets of nectar glistening in the sunlight.

There are not, however, large enough quantities of later flowering plants to keep honey production high, and when the main flushes of blossom from trees, roadsides, gardens and fields are fading, Syd and Pete take their bees up to the heather hills at the end of July in the back of the car. You might think that a trailer would be better for this job, but there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation why the bees are put inside the car. “It’s the car engine,” says Syd. “It’s strange, but the bees seemed to be tuned-in and at ease with the pitch of the car engine – it keeps them calm and they are never any bother while we are transporting them.”

Details about the  Beekeepers Association can be found at    www.cumbriabeekeepers.co.uk    or    www.bbka.org.uk