The six weeks of bad weather will particularly affect apples because it coincided with the time when apple blossom is usually pollinated, experts warned.
John Howat, secretary of the Bee Farmers’ Association of the UK, blamed the “unprecedented” pattern of a very warm March followed by an unrelentingly bad April and first three weeks of May.
“The very early warm March weather meant the bees were doing a grand job on the blossom that was out – pear, cherry, plum, dandelion, and early rape – most things were very early, in fact,” he said. “However, since then the bees have been using up their winter stores as well as those gathered in March to keep themselves alive.”
Howat said beekeepers have had to feed their bees with syrup to keep them alive because March’s false start meant the queens laid thousands of eggs in expectation of continuing good weather. Now the resulting brood has been consuming the stores. “There are now hives brimming with bees just waiting to get out,” he said.
“The warm weather [last week] will mean that pollination resumes with a vengeance,” he said. “However, during the six or seven weeks of bad weather, many of the flowers requiring pollination such as apples have been and gone.”
One company that will be adversely affected by this is Fourayes, the UK’s largest fruit processor. The business, which operates from its Bramley apple orchard in Kent, processes its crop to supply the likes of Sainsbury with fillings for apple pies and to make fruit purées for jams, preserves, confectioneries and smoothies.
Not only has the farm’s yield been reduced, lack of pollination has affected the quality of the apples as well.
“If our apples aren’t pollinated they will be misshapen,” said Judy Aslett, spokeswoman for Fourayes. “This is a problem for the supermarkets in terms of presentation but also for our processing machines, which reject fruit that isn’t round. This means it can’t be peeled and processed in the normal way but has to be made into purée.”
Fourayes farm has installed extra hives in the orchards this year and has attempted to create a microclimate by putting windbreaks around the orchard.
Howat said it was too early to tell if beekeepers’ action to feed their bees with syrup would be enough to minimise the impact of the cold weather.
“The stress on the bees may well cause in increase in disease,” said Howat. “We will find out if this is the case soon.”
In April The National Bee Unit – part of the Food and Environment Research Association – warned beekeepers of significant starvation finds by their inspectors and warned keepers to feed their bees.