This year at least the first part of the proverb “March comes in like a lion…” is correct, as for the past few days we have had gale force winds and a LOT of rain. Water is a basic necessity for life, but do we need quite this much?! For bees and beekeepers it’s a real nuisance, especially following on the heels of a warm sunny fortnight.
We were fooled by the ‘false Spring’ at the end of February, with the bees taking full advantage of the higher temperatures to leave the winter cluster and to fly out in search of pollen and water. We all know the relief of being able to stretch our legs after being cooped up for a while, and bees are the same – they crave space and the opportunity to spread their wings. Many of them will simply sit on the outside of the hive and soak up a few rays without venturing any further. Unfortunately, their freedom has been short-lived as the turn in the weather has forced them back into the hives for a short while.
Last month was spent cleaning equipment and ensuring we had enough hives and feeders for the coming season, and during the balmy spell we were able to check the weight of the hives to ascertain how much food the bees had. Some of them were a little light, leading us to make the decision to boost their stores with sugar syrup. Last year I made my own syrup but clearly my culinary skills weren’t up to the task as the sugar crystallised instead of remaining in liquid form. This resulted in the bees skating around on top of it instead of being able to suck it up; not the ideal situation! This year I went shopping and bought two large containers of 1:1 sugar solution, which was then transferred into round feeders which sit over holes in the crown boards, just under the hive roofs. The bees are able to climb up inside these feeders to access the syrup which they then take back into the hive and store.
It’s very tempting at this time of year to take a peek inside the hive to see if the queen is laying and generally check on how things are, but the beekeeper must be patient and wait for a warm day. If you let cold air into the hive you will chill your bees, and this can be fatal to them. You have to satisfy yourself with observing if the colonies have been flying well, and take note of how much pollen and what kind is being taken into the hives. Last year I planted yellow crocuses and mahonia bushes and this year it is gratifying to see our bees returning from their initial foraging journeys laden down with large loads of bright yellow pollen.
Having cautioned readers to be patient and wait before looking for the queen and/or evidence that she is laying, I confess that I inadvertently spotted the queen when placing the feeder on one of our hives. I didn’t take off the crown board, but there she was, boldly taking a look out through the hole. I was very surprised as normally the queen hides away from the light and is surrounded by attendants who guard her jealously, but this little madam was determined to have a look at the outside world. A brief puff from my smoker and she scurried back inside; I didn’t want her wandering off just yet as there is plenty of time for swarming later in the year.
So we are now ready for the beekeeping season to start in earnest. Equipment clean and ready, check. Bees flying in with pollen, check. Sugar syrup being fed where necessary, check. All we need now is the sun to fire the starting pistol and we’ll be off. Let’s hope the rest of the proverb comes true and March goes out like a lamb.
Amanda and Kevin moved to Confolens (16) in 2015, opening a chambre d’hôte and launching their beekeeping experience holiday business. They live with five cats, two tortoises and several thousand bees, and enjoy sharing their adventures in the apiary with others.