Get it while you can, Norfolk honey fans warned as record wet summer takes its toll

While the wet summer up until now may have spelled soggy barbecues, afternoons stuck inside and muddy music festivals for us, it was nothing short of disastrous for the county's honey bee population.

Months of unsettled weather, compounded by record-breaking rainfall, have seen local honey production plummet and the resulting shortages mean fans of the sweet stuff may soon struggle to get hold of a jar.

The ancient art of beekeeping is rarely simple, but when it comes to rain the facts are clear – if it's wet outside then the bees simply won't leave the hive to gather the nectar they need to survive and to make honey.

Colonies have been forced to eat their reserves to survive and could face starvation without the care of their vigilant keepers.

'The easiest way to describe the summer is terrible,' said Cromer-based beekeeper Barry Walker-Moore. 'In 18 years, I have never had one as bad as this. It's really just been awful.'

Mr Walker-Moore, events organiser for the West Norfolk Beekeepers' Association, keeps 18 hives at various spots including Northrepps, Weybourne and Kelling Heath. All have struggled.

'Honey production has been drastically reduced,' he said. 'I have had only about 50 to 60lbs, whereas I would usually expect about 400lbs in a season. Everyone I speak to is in a similar situation.

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'I don't think it will push prices up, but it does mean there will be a shortage. I always plan to store some for the winter to take us through to the new season in May, but this year I have nearly sold out.'

Association chairman Stuart Grant, who lives in Heacham, has experienced the same problems on the other side of Norfolk.

He began beekeeping about five years ago and now has 18 hives, with 60,000 bees on average in each.

'The irony is that I personally have more bees this year than ever before, but less honey because of the difficulties we are all facing,' he said.

'A good hive should produce an average of 100 to 120lbs a year. If I'm lucky, I might get an average of 40lbs and I know Barry has had even less. So, we are producing less than half of what we would usually expect.

'Most local honey is consumed in the year it is produced, so we will just run out of supplies locally.

'All in all, it has been a pretty disastrous year for our honey bees and their keepers so, if you like your local honey with all the health benefits regular consumption brings, the moral is get it while you can.'

The honey bees stayed inside for weeks at a time when the heavy rain hit in April, leaving them bad-tempered, difficult to manage and critically, more likely to up sticks and swarm.

'Our regional bee inspector said he has never experienced a swarming season as bad as this one,' Mr Grant said.

Even when the weather started to improve in May, the swarming tendency continued and the cold spring coupled with an early summer lead to a slow start for plants.

Experts say flowering began late, was of poor quality and started fading early, so the problems continued even when bees were able to get out and about.

'We needed some rain, but not in that quantity or for such a prolonged period,' Mr Walker-Moore said. 'But the problem's really been the combination of all the weather we've had.'

In the long-term, a lack of food can prevent bees from developing properly, leave them more vulnerable to disease and lead to poor Queen reproduction – all resulting in weaker colonies.

Some beekeepers were forced to hand-feed their bees with sugar syrup solutions even during the summer months just to keep them going.

'I was feeding them in June and July when they should have been going out into gardens and farms,' Mr Walker-Moore said. 'Sugar water is usually a kilo of sugar mixed with a litre of water and it's a substitute for what the bees would usually collect themselves.

'Most of us tend to be more vigilant when we have weather like this, so there is no real danger of starvation.

'Gone are the days when the old school beekeepers would check on them twice a year – these days we take a lot more care.'

Mr Walker-Moore said the honey bees would usually be fed heavily during September and October so they had sufficient stores to see them through the winter.

Colder weather is needed so the bees are not tempted to try foraging and use up that energy too soon.

'Anything under about 8C and they won't go out,' he explained.

Despite the difficulties currently facing beekeepers, membership of the West Norfolk Association has soared in recent years, with people of all ages and backgrounds increasingly keen to get involved.

When Mr Grant joined five years ago, there were about 85 members.

Today, there are about 230 members from across Norfolk, parts of Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire and its training courses are fully-booked.

He puts the increase down to the association's self-promotion at various events including the Sandringham Flower Show, but also the worldwide publicity surrounding honey bee health, particularly the varroa mite.

'It will probably help bees in the long-run because we are educating people,' Mr Walker-Moore added.

'You have to try beekeeping first. When people are interested in joining, one of us will take them out and show them inside a hive.

'It's not everyone's cup of tea and once you get a few thousand bees flying around you it can be a different story.'

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