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Going to the Apple Orchards

Updated: Apr 29, 2021

April 2021 by Fred Warden

It has been a long, drawn out and cold Spring but at last, the first inspections of the colonies can be done and the beekeeping season is underway. Remember all those theoretical, ideal first inspection conditions of blue skies, 14 degrees C and no cold wind? Welcome to Irish beekeeping!

There is nothing to match the feeling, an infectious happiness that the bees have made it through winter ok and conversely nothing much worse than the sharp realization that they haven’t.

Inspections still need be kept brief, only to see if the queen is laying well, that there are still enough stores and whether the colony needs space for the queen to lay (done by removing excess frames of stores - and these can be saved for starting off nucs later in the season).

Brace comb is carefully removed from the top frame bars/crown boards, floors cleaned and frames with old black comb worked out to the edge for later removal.

It’s all ahead of us now, what could possibly go wrong?

Most of my colonies have made it through it to Spring although the long, cold March & April weather has definitely hampered colony build up and ideally, they could be stronger to take advantage of the (fingers crossed) impending spring flow. The bees (on flying days) are working the dandelions and a good show of whins. Talking to other local beekeepers, losses are higher this year and as getting replacement nucs is traditionally difficult in spring, it’s a good idea to plan now for your nucs in 2022

Beekeeping practices are correctly dictated by the changing seasons rather than date, however I generally take the bees to the orchards in Armagh around the 2nd-3rd week of April to help with pollination. The blossom is usually fully broken by early May and it is one of the great sights of my beekeeping season.

Given reasonable weather, the bees get a great run on the pollen and copious apple blossom nectar which makes for a distinctive, mono-floral and uniquely flavoured honey. It is for me, the very best of the year.

The evening before going, I wait til the last foragers have returned, close the entrances, strap the hives up and carefully load them onto a trailer. The motto is “leave no bee behind” and it’s usually close to dark before finishing. There are ventilated travel screens in place of the usual solid crown boards so the bees do not overheat, but it’s a relatively short closure and mostly in the cool of the night.

I set off around 5am and hope to have the colonies unloaded and flying by 8am. There is nothing that concentrates the mind quite like a load of wooden hives full of bees furious at being shut in and determined to find a way out!

This photo, taken a few years back, is of the late Sam McCormick at the orchards. Sam introduced me to the joy of keeping bees and gently taught me whatever I’ve learned. We took our bees to the orchards in Armagh every year together. He is my beekeeping hero and was my dear friend.

Blessed with our fickle climate, you can never really rely on when the bees may be able to take advantage of a nectar flow to make some honey. In 2020 most of our honey was gathered in May and very little afterwards in what was overall, a poor season for honey in Ireland. (Don’t be confused by comments on online forums from across the water...” just popped my 3rd super on and its early May!”, “filled super in 5 days!”, “where do I get supers? all suppliers run out”... while here in Ireland, you scratch your head and wonder if that first super you added may have set the colony back because of the big ,cold (and also empty) super space above the brood box).

All we can do is have the bees in good order and ready to take advantage whenever Nature smiles on us.

Apple Blossom by Louis MacNeice

"The first blossom was the best blossom For the child who never had seen an orchard;”

I love this poem - look it up and read it all. Its about the joy of seeing things of beauty, as if seeing them for the first time. The late Canon John Bell, a beekeeper and past president of our Association, told me a great anecdote about when he officiated at MacNeice’s funeral service in Carrowdore:

Everyone was waiting and still the great poet’s ashes hadn’t actually arrived and Canon Bell was understandably quite anxious as the church was full. He noticed a taxi pull up and “a glamorous woman in a fur coat swayed up the church path with the urn tucked casually under her arm and there was the faint aroma of whiskey “

Poets (like bees) are reliably unreliable...

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