December 6, 2016, by Lucy

Guest post: A hive of weather data: exploring the International Bee Research Association’s collection

Guest post by Siobhan Maderson.

Modern life appears to be dominated by time. Our phones beep incessant reminders, urging us on to our next appointment. But we are fundamentally biological organisms, ruled by elemental systems.

The ancient Greeks recognised the difference between these two distinct patterns. Chronos describes the time of the clock, while Kairos is the time of circadian rhythms, and blossom coming into flower. The subtleties between, and within, these categories, can be challenging to distinguish in a world of FitBits and Big Data. Exploring local histories of weather patterns, and flowering patterns, helps us see and understand how weather impacts individuals, and communities – both human, and other species.

International Bee Research Association (IBRA)

I spent much of the summer in the National Library of Wales, researching the archives of the International Bee Research Association (IBRA). This extraordinary, international collection holds books, journals, memoirs, diaries, scientific reports and more – all relating to bees. While much of the archives consist of entomological research, and work on the natural history of bees, I am currently studying the environmental knowledge of beekeepers, as part of an ESRC-funded PhD. Beekeepers engage in a unique practice: practicing animal husbandry on a species which transcends the common binary distinction of wild vs tamed. Many forms of agricultural husbandry can be highly controlled: stock can be brought in, feed can be measured and controlled. Bees, on the other hand, manage to be subject to many human interventions, while remaining fundamentally wild. This results in beekeepers being highly engaged with, and astute observers of, the environmental conditions in areas where they keep their bees. Such engagement and observation led me to investigate the IBRA archives for beekeepers’ recollections of land use changes, flowering patterns, weather histories, and other factors that impact bees, and honey production. Beekeepers often keep extensive personal diaries relating to their bees. Local beekeeping associations also collate records of factors impacting their members. Within the IBRA collections are several histories of local beekeeping associations, and memoirs of long-term beekeepers. These records hold fascinating data of weather patterns on national, regional, and occasionally highly localised patterns.


Alice Allen with bee hives and skeps, West Bradley, Somerset, c. 1920s. Photo courtesy of David Charles.

Alice Allen with bee hives and skeps, West Bradley, Somerset, c. 1920s. Photo courtesy of David Charles.


Postcard detailing bee restocking scheme of 1920s. Image courtesy of David Charles.

Postcard detailing bee restocking scheme of 1920s. Image courtesy of David Charles.

Weather and Bees

The impact of the weather on bees, beekeepers, and surrounding forage, is important. Bees play a key role in biodiversity, and in food security. While other pollinators play an equally important role, honey bees are the pollinators humans most frequently, intensely engage with. Our history, and our cupboards, reflect this ancient engagement. As such, we can rely on beekeepers to provide a snapshot of the world around us. Much of the current research on pollinator decline is focused on biological investigations into bees’ responses to pesticides, and diseases. While this is important, there are other, systemic environmental influences that are central to bees– and are often documented in beekeepers’ memoirs, and local association records. Examining these can provide us with unique insights into local weather patterns, and their influence on the plants which bees rely on for forage and honey production in particular areas.

The IBRA collections contain memoirs of men who kept bees in the same place for sixty years. As such, these documents provide a unique phenological and historical window into particular locales. Records of particular crops, and contents of hedgerows, are detailed, as these are central to bees’ health and behaviour. A brief period of cold and rain in May or June can mean the difference between a bumper honey crop, or one’s bees barely surviving the season.

Such specificity is often lost when weather and climate patterns are discussed. A good balance of rainfall, coupled with appropriate temperatures, are key for a good honey crop. While some years were noted as being sunny, warm and pleasant, they were sometimes too dry, leading to a poor nectar flow. No nectar means no honey. Beekeepers’ records specify the seasonal fluctuations that often get lost in annual overviews. While we are growing increasingly accustomed to reports of a year being ‘the wettest/driest/hottest on record’ – beekeepers note exactly when the weather turned hot, cold, wet or windy. The dates make all the difference to the bees. The interplay of seasonal changes, and its impact on bees’ forage, are documented in these records.

Most long-term beekeepers note their own particular phenological event that heralds the beginning of the beekeeping season. Today, many beekeepers comfortably assert that one should never consider opening up the hives until the flowering currant burst their buds. Depending on where you are in the UK, this will generally happen sometime between March and April. Beekeepers may also move their bees to other sites, or apiaries, to take advantage of different crops. Changing weather patterns may lead to a particular crop no longer being ecologically, or economically viable. Beekeepers often write of weather and crop fluctuations over the course of many years. Such record allow us to fill in the many gaps in our understanding about what we can expect from our changing climate, and how we might – or might not – best adapt to it.

The county beekeeping association records are fascinating in their own right, but also allow us to understand regional variations in impact of weather patterns. While certain years, such as the infamous winter of 1947, were uniformly challenging for everyone from sheep farmers to beekeepers across the UK, close examination and comparison of records find variations in the impact on bees in different parts of the country – and, at times, even within a county.

For beekeepers in Essex, the winter of 1953 was notable for its floods. However, few hives were lost. Thousands of humans died as a result of these infamous North Sea floods, but the hives survived. Meanwhile, in Somerset, the same season was very bad. Perhaps these southwest beekeepers were paying for their rich bounty of 1947, where they recouped one of the best honey yields in years. This same year saw their Essex brethren battling through mud. For those beekeepers who did not lose their hives in the severe cold of 1946-7, many were rewarded in the following summer with high yields.

Geographically specific records

The Cumberland Beekeepers Association (CBA) history provides a wealth of insight into the microclimates and distinct local conditions impacting bees in this corner of North West England. The CBA included branches in Carlisle, Cockermouth, Keswick, Penrith, Whitehaven, and Workington. Their history, published in 1970, paints a picture of tenacious beekeepers coping with highly varied circumstances within the county. We see glimpses of deep detail. For those beekeepers who took their charges to the heather, 1929 was a disappointing year. In nearby Northumberland, by comparison, the heather yield was very good. 1939 was a good year for honey in the region, but predominantly from an early spring nectar flow, or from autumn heather. This suggests that the summer was comparatively poor. In 1966, the year was generally seen as poor overall, but better than some preceding years. The southwest of the county had better honey crops, but further inland, especially around Carlisle and Penrith, crops were poor. For those Carlisle beekeepers who stuck it out, they were rewarded the following year with above average honey crops. Unfortunately, if you were in Penrith, it was another bad year. Many tried to recoup their losses by taking their bees up to the moors, where the prized, distinctive heather honey is sourced. Like all bee forage, heather requires particular climatic conditions, at a particular time, if is to flourish and provide sufficient fodder to generate a valuable honey crop. Some years, like 1968, saw all the conditions falling into place fortuitously. The following year, 1969, was a very changeable year: ‘For those who had strong colonies in spring, there was a good crop of honey from sycamore and fruit blossom. Spring feeding seemed to have paid off. Two wet weeks in early July spoiled what was looking to be a very good year. Heather honey was available for those who went early to moors, but dried up completely later, – a great disappointment considering the wonderful weather” (Dodd, 1970). Here we see the importance of localised, specific weather patterns. Although the weather is described as ‘wonderful’, it clearly wasn’t right for heather.

Such specific detail on local climate conditions, and their effect on crops, are important to engage with when addressing climate’s impact on society, and agriculture. These links are easy to overlook at a time when we are increasingly disengaged with agriculture and the land. While the general public may recall a year as being glorious if the sun shines during the school holidays, and halcyon days at the beach carry on for those six weeks, the importance of particular levels of rain, temperature and sunshine at particular points in the year are crucial for many animal and plant species reproductive cycles. Weather is more than a conversation topic, or a wardrobe driver. It is the foundation for the food on our plates. Beekeepers’ records provide a unique insight into this, on a local scale. As the Cumberland Beekeepers Association say: ‘now, the environment, too has changed. … So while one source of nectar tended to disappear, another became available. … But one thing has not changed: our changeable weather, which has been, and is likely to be the principal single factor in production of honey. ‘

Siobhan Maderson


  • Charles, David, 2005: Somerset beekeepers and beekeeping associations: a history 1875 – 2005
  • Dodd, William, 1970. Cumberland Beekeepers’ Association; A history compiled from official records
  • Essex Beekeepers Association, 1980: One hundred years of honey: Essex Beekeepers Association, 1880-1980: recording the centenary of the Essex Beekeepers Association
  • South Tipperary Beekeepers’ Association, 1995: South Tipperary Beekeepers’ Association golden jubilee, 1945-1995
Posted in Guest postWeather extremes