This is the current view from my back gate: oil seed rape in full flower. I am an artist as well as a beekeeper and part of me is enthralled by the expanse of bright yellow right outside my back door – and fortunately I don’t suffer with hay fever! Sadly though, this is a controversial crop for two reasons. Firstly, this is not an organic farm, and the systemic and topical insecticides used to keep flea beetles and other insects from chomping in to the profits also notoriously harm bees and other beneficial insects…the clue is in the term “insecticide”. Although the EU banned neonicotinoid pesticides in 2015, there have been various scientific studies to show that the alternatives are similarly detrimental to our pollinators, especially when used in conjunction with the other crop treatments such as fungicides and herbicides. The irony is that the bees and other insects are required to pollinate the flowers in order to provide a good set of the seed for which the crop is grown in the first place! Unfortunately it is not simply a case of it being a lethal topical dose which would kill the bees (we could shut our bees in for a day if that were the case), but a more insidious problem affecting the ability of the bees to navigate, and disrupting the colony’s “mind” by affecting worker behaviour and pheromone balance.
Secondly, the nectar crystallises so quickly and enthusiastically, the honey it produces turns rock solid both in and out of the combs. This means that despite the abundance of flowers and pollen, it is rather a poisoned chalice. Even though bees who can forage freely (rather than being specifically brought in to pollinate the rape crop) don’t necessarily prefer it, it is visited by them, and will inoculate any other nectar with the super-fast crystallising properties and mean your honey will definitely set.
Oils seed rape pollen is a khaki colour, and because of the position of the stamens on the flower, the bees get a daub of pollen between their eyes too, so you can tell when they’ve been out on the crop if you watch them returning to the hive. Thankfully my bees are in an area of rich alternative sources – you can see the band of blackthorn blossom in the hedge in the photo above – and there are dandelions, lady’s smock and celandines galore, and soon the umbellifers will be out.
So what can we do about the honey? If you have excess honey in the hive following the winter, remove the capped frames so that the bees use the rape nectar to build new comb. Bees need to eat a great deal of food to generate wax and this will mean the nectar gets used to make wax rather than honey. If that’s not possible, take out some honey as soon as it is capped and process it – you can leave it as honeycomb if you’re running your bees on foundationless frames, and it will set, but you can cut it up and either eat it like candy or warm it slightly – on toast for example. If you want to crush and strain it, you will have to work very quickly, but you can stir the honey gently with a spoon or spatula every few hours for a day or so and that will produce a creamed honey rather than a spoon-bending one!
The more troubling question to do with the seed dressings and sprays used on the crop is harder to answer. Organic agriculture is of course preferable but sadly a huge amount of OSR oil is used industrially and in food processing so even choosing to buy organic oil has a limited impact on the overall production. Keeping our bees strong and healthy in every other way we can, and ensuring there is a variety of natural forage plants so that they are not reliant on the temporary influx of rape will also help to reduce the impact on our honeybees and other pollinators.