The past few weeks have been warm, sunny and mild here in the UK, and as such, the bees have been out looking for pollen and nectar. I don’t normally check my bees until March or even April, but as they have been so active, I wanted to see what was going on and they are clearly no longer in a winter cluster. I don’t feed my bees (although I would if they were starving…) as I leave them with all their honey so I like to know how they are doing with their stores, then I can judge how they are building up. This gives me a benchmark for the rest of the season.
As all colonies are individuals, and within that, vary from year to year, it is good to observe their growth and tie that in with the weather conditions and the age/stage of the colony. They don’t necessarily follow a steady, obvious trajectory (despite what the books say!) and it’s important to just watch and learn and be ready to accommodate them.
Of course, checking so early means being extra careful not to damage the queen as she can’t be replaced at this time of year. My main objective was to establish whether the hives were queenright and to ensure they had sufficient room to expand, and stores with which to do so.
The pollen has finally started to come out on the willow:
These catkins provide a huge boost in nectar and pollen, and even at 10am it was being visited by bumblebee queens, honeybees, flies of various shapes and sizes, and butterflies.
The first hive I checked had a full super of stores but when I delved further in to the frames, I saw a capped emergency queen cell in the middle, so it would appear the colony has lost its queen. There is nothing I can do if this is the case as there are no drones for her to mate with, and I don’t have a nucleus hive which I could combine. However, I have left it as it is and I will see what happens.
Another hive I looked in had no brood, but plenty of bright yellow pollen in a pleasing arc across the top of the nest, and shiny dark cells, clean and ready for the queen to lay. I did see the queen among the bees clustered on the frame, although she did look quite quiet. Again, I will see what happens.
I had left two supers on one hive, and the top one was three-quarters full, so I have taken off the full super underneath so they have room to build up. They had a patch of brood in the centre of the middle frame so the queen has just started to lay again. The Squash Court bees, who looked incredibly strong, had three supers so I have removed the top one:
They build completely straight frames with no cross comb (which can be an issue with foundationless frames) and are vigorous and feisty. The brood box is full of wild comb so I can’t inspect them below the super, but I think it’s fair to say that they are in good health! Feral bee colonies are fascinating, and should be cherished.
So, I now have honey and beeswax to process. I will make sure I don’t let the honey drain for too long in the strainer tank so I can give plenty of honey back to them to lick off the crushed comb. By taking excess honey off now, I can feed it back at intervals should they need it, and they do all still have full supers and plenty of honey around the nest. Remember that the honey-filled super provides insulation as well as food so it is important that they have this duvet over them at all times. It also means that if this mild weather does continue, they will have room to expand as they eat in to the super, then I can give them a new box with empty frames to build. This won’t necessarily stop them swarming, but it will provide them with work to do which they are instinctively prepared for: young bees will be hatching out and wanting to build comb.
This can be a nerve-wracking time for beekeepers as the colony is poised between increasing in size to take advantage of the spring pollen, but also at the mercy of the weather. This dilemma is something the bees are well used to, but the issue is that forage provision is so variable. Planting more bee-friendly plants is the answer to that, and allowing the bees to increase at their own pace and in their own way and with their own stores should prevent them getting in to difficulties.