Beekeeping notes by Amanda Millar
March will be the start of bee activities this year, with what could be the most important and eagerly awaited first inspection of the year. We also need to get ready for swarming, queen rearing and nectar flow, which will not be far away, I hope. I keep their insulation on for a few more months, as the old winter bees will all be dying off this month and as the brood increases, cold spells could lead to chilled brood as the nurse bees are stretched at this time. The mouse guards and woodpecker netting could be removed now. Frames can be made up with foundation so it is fresh and ready for brood expansion, nectar storage or artificial swarms when needed. We must also put our Asian Hornet non-kill monitoring traps up as soon as possible. The queens will be looking for sweet nourishment. Non-kill because we do not want to harm our native insects, hoverflies, bumblebees which are also looking for sweetness, so check and release them daily. If you find an Asian Hornet we are not to release it but check on the National Bee Unit website for what to do.
a Bombus terrestris queen on iris in Feb
I don't know when the weather will be suitable to check our colonies; not as early as last year certainly, but we must still heft them for stores, probably more die of starvation in March than any other month as their requirement increases. Go easy on the fondant though, by mid March it will probably be warm enough to give them syrup – but only if they need it, see more about this below. Mine have been stuck indoors quite a bit this month but as soon as the sun comes out they rush out frantically orientating and collecting pollen, I feel sorry for them battling against the strong winds which will definitely have reduced their pollen collection and probably chilled quite a few to death. It will be interesting to see if the bee season gets going later this year as a result.
desperate for pollen
As soon as the temperature reaches 14°C or possibly 12°C providing the sun is shining and there is no wind, I shall be in there inspecting that they are OK. The first inspection will be short and I will use cover cloths to keep the warmth in and probably will not need smoke. This first inspection is to check that they are alive, that they have enough stores within reach, and that they have normal, healthy worker brood of all stages and not drone and a quick assessment of the state of the comb. If the weather is warm enough for a longer inspection, otherwise at the second one, things to look for (in no particular order) are eg the state of the floor. I usually carry a clean one around with me to replace any with debris or dead on, which may be an indication of some disease and should be noted. It’s quicker and easier on the bees than trying to clean in situ. While the colony is small it is an opportunity to find, mark and clip a queen which has superseded an old one last autumn; this happens more often than people realise. Also very important while they are small, remove any old, dark comb with no brood or stores on and replace with foundation or better still clean drawn comb at the side of the cluster, however, this early in the year always leave the colony in contact with stores on one side of the cluster in case it turns cold. If all the combs are dark it might be better to do a Shook Swarm, or Bailey change if the colony is small, but towards the end of the month when it is warmer. They will also need food coming in to make wax so either make use of a nectar flow or feed small amounts of 1:1 syrup.
Even if I cannot inspect yet I shall put an insert in this week for several days to see if they have increased the active seams, check varroa load etc as it is nearly 7 weeks since I last checked. If you see no activity from a colony when others are active, a quick lift of the crownboard will confirm if they are dead in which case seal them up and remove for recycling and sterilization after trying to ascertain why they died.
I did not think they liked daffodils but this colour was visited repeatedly today
In March we shall need to give them more space for the expanding brood, we can replace tatty brood comb and frames clogged with last year’s old pollen which they will no longer be using now the fresh pollen is coming in. In this way we can provide them with a full brood box of useable frames. A large colony may need a super to expand their brood into. Before adding supers for nectar storage, as soon as the nectar flow starts, make sure they do not have many frames with stores if you fed them syrup last autumn. They will move this up into the supers and contaminate the honey crop. I label these sealed frames and store in the deepfreeze to return to them in the autumn. This is also why we need to be very careful how much we feed them at this time of year – only what they need.
I hope all your hives remained upright during the recent storms. With all the rain the ground is very soft and there have been reports of trees falling over, indeed one of my apple trees did just that. So do check your hive stands are still stable; some of my slabs have been undermined by moles and they do not have the support they once had. Add in wet ground and all the wind we have been having and there is the potential for tilting or collapse.
Good to see them outside on 23rd Feb