Homeschooling bees

Here in the UK, we have been issued with restrictions regarding social distancing and non-essential visits in order to control/contain/reduce the risk of infection from Covid-19. There has been much talk regarding whether beekeepers can visit their bees, and as I write, DEFRA and the BBKA have issued statements allowing hives to be tended as bees are technically livestock. The BBKA also instructed beekeepers to ensure bees had enough room and food, and to supply candy or syrup and pollen substitute if necessary. Many people’s response to this seems to have been to add a super as a precaution and any leftover feed they have as an insurance policy.

The difficulty with this is that the bees will now have a huge amount of room above the nest, and a cold snap is forecast for the end of the week. It is nowhere near warm enough for the bees to draw comb so it will be a lot of work for them to keep the space heated – which will mean they need more food, which means you will need to top up…

Maintaining a regular temperature within the nest is incredibly important as the fungal disease (Chalkbrood) and chilled brood/deformed bees can arise if the brood gets cold. This is another reason to not take frames out when it’s too cool.

We have to ask if going to visit our bees in the next few weeks while the restrictions are in place are truly necessary. Mine are on my site, or very nearby but I am still loath to put myself in any danger of getting stung so I am quite happy to leave them and assume that they are capable of adjusting themselves to the room they have and the food in the stores. If you need to drive to your apiary, there are consequences with driving/fuel provision and being obliged to manipulate your bees on your own. However, when I put these reservations and queries to the BKA WhatsApp group, I was told that to not visit or feed nor pre-emptively super was neglectful and uncaring, and not the behaviour of a “good beekeeper”.

Many schools here have closed to all children apart from those whose parents are part of the essential workforce, meaning lots and lots of families are now embarking on impromptu homeschooling. I homeschooled all 3 of my children (my youngest is now 17) and I was often called neglectful and selfish for doing so, as I was clearly depriving my children of a proper education and important socialisation. Needless to say, this was categorically not the case, as the children learned a far greater range of subjects and had a more diverse set of friends, and weren’t obliged to fit in to anyone else’s agenda. Yes, I put in place structure and direction with what, when and how they learned, but this could be flexible and adapted to outside influences and new discoveries.

I wonder if this season we should homeschool our bees. I like to think I have adopted the mindset already, but because I teach courses and provide mentoring, and sell both bees and honey, I do have to have more of a framework than most, even if the actual physical intervention with my individual colonies is limited. As everything apart from potential honey sales is now delayed for the foreseeable, I am curious to see what I learn from the bees when I can do less by way of observation – after all, that is vital to keep a check on what is happening. I suspect bait hives are going to be more necessary than ever. How much can I rely on my instincts, with looking at the weather and trying to envisage what is going on inside the hive. Can I hang back even more and trust my knowledge of keeping bees here for the last decade to inform me?

I may try nadiring my British Standard hives, so put a super under the brood box, to give them more room but not disturb the warmth. I can then super when the nectar flow starts later in the year. This has its limitations but I try and run my bees on a brood-and-a-half anyway and I can swap them over later. When I was first investigating sustainable beekeeping I tried lots of different things on hives to see what happened. I feel strangely invigorated at the thought of being able to step back and simply think and watch and discover.

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