Normally at this time of year, I would say that ‘it is all about to kick off’, but in many ways, this year, it already has. As soon as the sun comes out and the temperature is reasonable, the bees will take pollen into the hives, and have been doing so for many weeks now. That is a sure sign that the queen is starting to lay eggs again. Unfortunately, the weather has a nasty habit of biting you in the nether regions. I made up a load of thick syrup to give my bees, and then the weather turned cold again, and I have just made them some fondant. At least the syrup will keep while the weather is cool.
Given the bizarre winter that we have had, now officially the warmest on record, I would think very seriously about giving supplemental nourishment and encouragement to your bees when the weather does lift a little. Feeding fondant and syrup should continue until the blackthorn comes into proper bloom, and we have a sustained spell of truly spring weather – sun and warm temperatures. That will make the nectar flow and there will be pollen galore. When I said supplemental feeding, I was also thinking about pollen patties. There are several good pollen substitutes available, but the product which is on the lips of most beekeepers this year, actually uses real pollen, which has been irradiated, to remove any harmful ‘bugs’. At first it seems to be expensive (what isn’t in beekeeping?), but you don’t have to pour it all into one hive.
The reason for feeding your colonies both syrup and pollen patties is simple really. The worker bees that are in the hive now, could be as much as six months old. In bee terms that is positively geriatric, and they can’t hold out too much longer. In fact, the numbers have been falling slowly all winter. They are now at about their lowest ebb. This has several connotations. Fewer bees are trying to get the colony going again, and keeping warm, should the weather turn cold, are just two to contemplate. Pollen patties will stimulate the bees into making the queen lay more eggs. The sooner she does this, with success, the stronger that colony will be and it will get a head start on the season.
Is it too cold to open the hive? Will I do damage to the bees if I open the hive? Normally, I would say wait until the weather is warm enough. That’s around 15ᵒC - 16ᵒC,
but if you are that worried about them and think that they are in grave danger, or if they are all alive in there, then it is better that you open up and check, rather than leave them to perish. As for resuscitating a small colony, it all depends how small that colony is. If it is clinging on to about three frames, it might be a good idea to move those three frames and two containing stores, into a nucleus box. Failing that, remove the empty frames. Move those with the bees on to one side and place a dummy board on the open side, or better yet, if you have some polystyrene blocks, cut them to size and slide them in. If stores are extremely low, you will need to feed them some thin syrup, and as an emergency measure you could simply spray a little sugar syrup over the bees themselves. Don’t drown them, just give them a small snack to get started.
At our introductory course recently, somebody asked if they should think about putting a super on soon. This led on to a long debate on the pros and cons of doing this so early in the season. One thing to remember is that if you put a super on while you are still feeding the bees, you must not harvest from that super. There is grave danger of selling sugar as honey, and apart from anything else, that is illegal.
Now is also a good time to consider the future. Most colonies of bees in this country are not of pure lineage, but are what we unkindly call mongrels. However, they tend to veer towards one race, or another. If your bees are more like the British black bee apis mellifera mellifera, they will tend to make more honey and produce less new bees, whereas those leaning towards the Italian apis mellifera Ligustica, will produce more bees and less honey. What are your intentions? Do you want to sell small nucleus colonies to new beekeepers, or honey to the local population? Both can (in a good year) be profitable).
It’s still too cool to do a proper inspection, but you can learn a lot of what is going on inside the hive by looking at the entrance, and there is a very good book to guide you in interpreting what you see. ‘At the hive entrance’ – by Professor H. Storch, was first published in German as ‘Am flugloch’, and you can buy it for £7.64 from a well-known online bookstore, or alternatively download a free version from https://archive.org/details/AtTheHiveEntrance. There are several sites where this book is available, but here you can read it as an online book, or download it to read on your computer, Kindle, Kobo or several other types of digital reader.