Well, after last years very wet summer and this years bitterly cold spring it comes as no surprise that our bees (along with the rest of nature) is having such a hard time.
Colony losses in our area have been high and many of those which have managed to survive are only just hanging on. In amongst these there are however some surprisingly strong colonies which given some decent weather are well placed to take advantage of natures bounty.
It is tempting to keep these strong colonies for honey production but as they are proven survivors maybe we should be thinking more in terms of raising some queens/nucs from them instead and improving the quality of our bees?
Of course there are techniques (Snelgrove among others) which allow you to raise queens and harvest some honey as well providing the colony is a good strong vigorous one to start with. I hope to be adding an article on the Snelgrove method in the near future.
Meanwhile those colonies which are building up well will no doubt soon be turning there minds to swarming. If you do not want to lose a swarm then weekly seven day inspections will be required (ten days if your queens are clipped). If you find unsealed queen cells then you can find details of how to perform an artificial swarm on our new website. If you are too late and the cells are sealed and the queen has gone (along with a good proportion of your bees) then unless you take action you might lose even more bees as a cast or secondary swarm leaves with the new virgin queen.
Of course swarms are not always bad news as I am sure there are plenty of beekeepers who would be delighted to collect one! Don't forget that if you need help with a swarm then contact Gordon in the first instance who will coordinate the neccesary response.
Finally do keep an eye on the bees stores, with lots of brood to feed they will soon get through it and if this dreadful weather carries on then they will need feeding 1:1 syrup.
Having endured the coldest spring for many years I know many of our members have had significant losses among their bees. It is particularly hard to take when I know how much care we take over our bees and try to do everything right for them. Many losses were not down to lack of food, just that the bees had become isolated from their stores and because of the low daytime temperatures had not broken their clusters to "top up".
Many of the colonies which have survived are quite small and will take time to get back up to "honey surplus" strength. I have united some of my own colonies to get their strength up to a decent foraging force. Its not all bad news with some good size colonies making it through - good queen raising stock!
Lets just hope that we finally get a decent summer and the bees quickly recover. For those who have lost all of your bees I am sure there will be swarms before too long and you will be back in the saddle!
As I write this in mid-March, the outside temperature is hovering around freezing and light snow flurries continue to fall, hardly beekeeping weather but not unusual for this time of year!
Inside the hive the bees will have already started their nests with the Queen laying increasing numbers of eggs each day. A combination of an increasing amount of brood to feed, together with ever decreasing amounts of winter stores, spells danger for the colony. This is when colonies of bees can and often do starve. If in doubt, place a block of bakers fondant directly over the feed hole. This is preferred to syrup this early in the year as a couple of pints of freezing syrup inches above the nest can chill the brood (and the bees!).
The bees will of course need moisture to hydrate the fondant, but this is also true of course with their own sealed stores. They seem pretty adept at this, either popping out on milder days to collect water or using the naturally occurring condensation within the hive itself.
As we move into late March/early April (and the weather begins warm up), if the bees are light on stores then a couple of pints of 1:1 sugar syrup will keep them going until spring really gets going.
It’s always a nervous time making the first inspection of the year! Pick a mild day with light winds, when the bees are flying. Hopefully you will find that your bees have come through winter, the Queen has started to lay and the bees look healthy and raring to go, with adequate stores.
If your bees have sadly died and the cause is not obvious, then either remove the hive completely in order to sterilise it in case of disease, or at least seal the entrance to prevent robbing by other colonies and thereby transferring disease to other hives.
If the colony is weak and is failing to build up, the two main suspects are normally Nosema and/or Varroa. Plenty of information on both and lots more besides is freely available at www.nationalbeeunit.com.
If you use solid floors, now is a good time to swap it for a clean one. I would delay any marking/clipping of the Queen until the bees are in a position to replace her in case it goes wrong, i.e. wait until there are drones on the wing.
Where I live there is plenty of dandelion in spring, which really gives the bees an early boost (weather permitting), making any new comb a really bright yellow, and if the weather is really mild can provide a decent spring flow.
Let’s hope we at last get a decent summer this year (hope springs eternal etc.) and may all your swarms be low hanging!
Training Officer, Lampeter & District Beekeepers’ Association