2012: the year of the disappearing apples – and bees

Cider apples on a tree in Devon

Behold the apples’ rounded worlds:

juice-green of July rain,

the black polestar of flowers, the rind

mapped with its crimson stain.


The russet, crab and cottage red

burn to the sun’s hot brass

then drop like sweat from every branch

and bubble in the grass.


They lie as wanton as they fall,

and where they fall and break,

the stallion clamps his crunching jaws

the starling stabs his beak.


In each plump gourd the cidery bite

of boys’ teeth tears the skin;

the waltzing wasp consumes his share,

the bent worm enters in.


I, with as easy hunger, take

entire my season’s dole;

welcome the ripe, the sweet, the sour,

the hollow and the whole.


This poem, Apples, by Laurie Lee is a gentle celebration of the place of these fruit in a mid-twentieth century country life.   The apples mature in the “sun’s hot brass” and fall from the tree as if to herald the arrival of autumn.  Now in 2012 it is autumn.  It should be the “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” but this year one of those seasonal signs, the apple, has been badly hit.  According to English Apples and Pears, the apple harvest is down by 25% overall compared to last year.  Some varieties such as Cox’s have been hit much harder.  It gets worse.  Even those apples that make it to our shops will be blemished, having taken a battering in the wet and windy weather.  Taste, we are assured, will not be affected but you can be sure that prices will be higher. 

Cider apples ready for pressing (2010 season)

Cider apples have been particularly badly affected and much less cider will be made this year.  One Somerset cider producer, Julian Temperley, reports a 50% overall reduction in cider apples this season, although one of his varieties, the Kingston Black, has loved the weather and cropped heavily.   

So, what has caused this apple disaster?  April, May, June this year was the wettest three month period in the UK since modern rainfall records began in 1910.  This meant that the bees were unable to fly.  Because the bees sheltered in their hives and nests, the flowers on the apple trees were not fully pollinated.  Some fruitlets did develop but a proportion of these then suffered wind damage.  It is also possible that the trees were “exhausted” by cropping so well in 2011.  Hopefully, this year’s poor harvest will be followed by a much better apple harvest in 2013. 

A honeybee foraging on a Hardy Geranium

I do also wonder how the bees are going to be affected by the poor summer.  Because they couldn’t fly in the poor weather, they couldn’t forage for pollen and nectar and many beekeepers had to feed their bees artificially.  Bees may enter the winter in a depleted state and there could be higher than usual losses of bees this winter. 

This is a grim story but it has a silver lining.  It shows very clearly how critical the bees are for agriculture in this country.  Bees act as as pollinators for so many of our crops.  Without adequate pollination the apple crop has been badly hit.  We need to make sure our bees are protected.  Friends of the Earth continue to pursue their Bee Cause campaign but it is very reassuring to see that the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee has recently decided to examine the emotive issue of whether insecticides are harming bee health.   These are hopeful signs that the welfare of the bees is being taken seriously.

[Thanks to “A Woman of the Soil” for alerting me to the poem by Laurie Lee]

Cider apples (2010 season)

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