Forage decline over the centuries

In a conversation with Gareth a few days ago he mentioned that when he began beekeeping in the 70’s, it was normal to get 50 pounds of honey from a hive per year, and it was unusual to have to feed them sugar. And looking further back he’d discovered that texts written in the mid 1800’s mentioned that people regularly got 100 to 20 pounds of honey per colony per year – and that was with simple skeps.

Listening to the radio a few weeks ago I heard the serialised version of Prof Dave Goulson’s book, “A Sting in the Tail”. This is about bumblebees rather than honeybees so it is a slightly different perspective and another overlapping set of facts to add to one’s knowledge base. (The broadcast version was very easy to listen to, by the way – with lots of interesting personal anecdotes to illustrate points – so I assume the printed version is an easy read too). He mentioned a key fact about forage: up to 1900 or so, the main form of power in the world was horses. So there was an AWFUL lot of alfalfa and clover grown, to feed the horses. There were fields of the stuff everywhere. I think he may have said 1 in 4 fields were clover / alfalfa, but I may have misremembered that.

On a related subject, I just tried to check that fact (no luck) but in the Wikipedia entry on alfalfa, it mentions it isn’t ideally suited to pollination by western honeybees because it has a ‘keel’ structure which transfers pollen to the bee by hitting it on the head. EHB’s, however, do not like being struck repeatedly on the head(!) so learn to go round the side – thus the older experienced foragers get the nectar but not the pollen.

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4 Responses to Forage decline over the centuries

  1. jonbinspired says:

    I have detailed records from the 70’s showing 80lbs average on hives (every year), and some hives producing over 100lbs (fed sugar so not same as Gareth’s example) . That is not possible now at the same location.

    Also queens failing to mate properly is another new thing we see in the last 10 years.

  2. itsonlyausername says:

    First of all i have a copy of the book and it is easy to read.
    Second thing to note is that 100 years ago the inclination was not to monoculture everything. Hence small fields bounded by neat hedges, kept neat by manual labourers in the autumn as and when required. Also of note is the fact that hedgerows account for a hefty quantity of forage not just for insects (bees are insects for the benefit of my point) but for the birds as well. Oh and the Red Squirrels which were far more common then.
    So what has changed? Obvious really. Grubbed up hedgerows. Mechanisation. Toxic chemicals sufficient to float anyone’s boat. Monoculture landscapes with huge fields fit to sail that floated boat when the storms come.
    The list of ecocidal crimes goes on and on and on. Yes the modern act of desecration called laughingly ‘Conventional agriculture’ is in my opinion an act of Ecocide! Not that my opinion matters one jot to those making vast sums of money from the demise of natural resources. Actually food is derived from the land and the land is being steadily and rapidly depleted as Harry has been pointing out for a long time now. He’s right. As the soil becomes more depleted so does the quality of food produced. It is a resource that is natural and being rapidly depleted.

    Ever wonder why we have so many floods? It may not seem relevant but its to do with the soil. There is no organic matter left in it so it is virtually all clay like particles. When this gets wet it acts like a sealed layer of clay like you would find in the bottom of the old village ponds. Remember the art of ‘Puddling’ anyone? The art of resealing the bottom of clay lined duck ponds and dew ponds was fun for the villagers in fine weather. Stomping down the clay to make good the sealed layer of clay. Well with all those huge tonka toys farmers like to invest in the ground 6 inches down is rock hard like a puddled pond bottom. As soon as it rains away goes the water down to the lowest point simply because that clay like layer acts like a pond bottom and is impervious to water ingress. Instead of being soaked up by the healthy soil with its organic matter content it simply runs off taking fine silt and all the artificial fertilisers from the top half an inch with it. That’s approx 12.5mm for the uneducated. 🙂 Hence flooded lower landscapes, algal blooms in the rivers with no life left afterwards because there is no oxygen left and dead zones in the estuaries pretty much because of the same impact.
    You see its not just the lack of forage that modern ‘Conventional agriculture’ is to blame for. Its the entire set of serious issues that we have come to take as normal that start their life in the farmlands. And normal is not what they are. It is what today’s younger generation will grow iup with and they will think this is normal. Its up to us old types with our Imperial measures and fading memories (not) to educate them before we all lose the land we need for the future of everything.

    Finally one last point. Doesn’t ‘The Dark Side’ keep records of honey production over the years its been in existence? What about local groups? Do they not have local historical archives on bee keeping and honey production? Would be interesting to note production to locality and I am sure this info could be useful for someone’s PhD. 🙂

  3. jen3972 says:

    I’d never thought of the link between horses and bee forage! Very interesting, as are the other contributors’ comments.

  4. simplebees says:

    The yields of farm crops have increased hugely over the same period but one fears that this is at the expense of the ecosystem in general. The decline in honey harvests could be a reflection of this fact. If so, it would show the true cost of ‘cheap’ food: without a properly functioning ecosystem we are in all sorts of trouble.

    Gareth, Cotswolds

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