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.