Updated: Apr 28
14th February 2021
Hello & welcome to the first in a maybe monthly series amongst the beehives over the coming season. It’s certainly not a "how to" or even a "should do" but more of an occasional & at times rather panicked stumble through what’s occurring with the bees. I’ve kept bees for about 10 years now, with three apiaries in the countryside at the top end of the Ards peninsula.
“The bees are flying. They taste the spring.” (1)
Though clearly not this afternoon!
I always think late Feb/early March is a tricky time of the year for beekeeping.
We’ve got the snowdrops, crocuses and gorse producing forage although our weather often prevents the bees making the most of them. There is often not alot going on outside the hives but hopefully there is alot going on inside ... brood rearing should be underway by now.
In a few short weeks the first dandelions in bloom often mark the first real opportunity for the bees to get stretch their wings and forage and even then it’s usually still too cold for full inspections. It’s hard to resist the temptation for a wee poke about through the boxes, alhtough it’s best to wait a bit longer for “the full hoke". Anyhow there’s probably very little that can be done at this stage to rectify any issues. Last year’s first full inspection for me was on 26th March 2020. (2)
Still continue weekly hefting & checking if any colonies (with special attention to nucs) are light in stores and need a fondant top up. Most of my hives have been getting fondant since 7th January. Some are ignoring it altogether, which is grand, some have been munching through it steadily. I try/hope/and generally fail not to overfeed and a weekly heft gives me an idea of what store levels are since I don’t want the brood frames still crammed with food in March when the queen needs that room with an increase in her rate of laying.
On the occasional day warm enough for bees to be flying well a look at the entrances can reveal alot, hopefully the bees are bringing back pollen, which is usually a pretty good indication that brood rearing has begun in earnest and all is well inside (although, as with all matters beekeeping... not always!)
One hive had no entrance activity and an illegal “bending of the guidelines” revealed a dead colony: masses of dead bees on the floor and loads of bees stuck head first into the frame cells .
I had a careful sift through the dead bees for any obvious signs of disease. (3) It’s ‘likely’ (4) to be a classic case of isolation starvation since there were still stores on the frames and fondant above which they just didn’t move to during a cold snap (even a few cms is too much for them to travel across the frame in cold conditions like the recent sub zero temperatures we‘ve been enjoying).
I could not find the marked 2020 queen but I did find a hatched queen cell on a frame and I suspect they also went for a late season queen replacement which didn’t work out well for them. It happens.
I like to try and improve my beekeeping each year (marginal gains is the modern day adage) and am trying Stimulative Feeding for the first time - I need the colonies to be as strong as possible by mid April for their early season working holiday in the Armagh orchards. This involves giving each hive an inverted 1 lb jar of light syrup from late Feb, fed slowly (only 2-3 pin holes in the lid) Theory is it fools the bees into thinking a flow has started and the queen starts laying more rapidly. The syrup is removed mid March and I will then put 100-200g of bee protein powder in the empty combs nearest to combs with brood(5). This is to help feed the extra new brood being raised and is maybe of even greater benefit if the weather is poor. I will report back on how it goes though it’s hardly a rigorous scientific test as all the hives will be getting it.
As a friend of mine says before a chess game “all our mistakes lie ahead of us but imagine the fun we will have making them”
Good luck to everyone on first inspections, fingers crossed no drone laying/disappeared or failing queens and the season at last lies before us and also all our future brilliant mistakes ... the bees will most probably correct many of them (in the hive & sadly not on the chess board) and we will keep learning.
Don’t be fretting about the weather, we had snow just like this 2 years ago to the day and 2018 was the year EVERYONE ran out of supers. Keeping bees is fun, enjoy (6)
(1) From the poem "Wintering" by Sylvia Plath. I love this line so much, it is full of hope and positivity, both things we are in need of at present. Same poem describes the winter colony, devoid of drones
‘The bees are all women, Maids and the long, royal lady.
They have got rid of the men, the blunt, clumsy stumblers, the boors’
Though I suspect this is a (fond) metaphor for men and really you couldn’t blame her.
(2) This often seems to occur around the first sighting of a swallow
(3) There were none, however ‘obvious signs of disease’ is a covering statement intended to bluff that I would know
(4) More blatant covering words such as ‘most likely, probably, depending on, hard to say, possibly’ pepper every beekeepers’ advice/opinion/wise words
(5) Mann Lake Ultra Bee
(6) My favourite bee blog is written by David Evans https://www.theapiarist.org/blog/ and this quotation of his never fails to raise a smile
‘The beekeeping season can feel like a series of calamities interrupted by winter’
Let the chaos begin.