Written by David Buckley – 54 years of beekeeping
Whenever I go to an apiary my first focus is to watch the hive entrance. This applies whatever the season or time of year. Today, in early March, when the sun was shining one of the colonies seemed to be excessively active. After a few minutes of observation I noticed that a few bees were bringing in some early pollen. That’s good I thought but quickly spotted drones flying! Potentially this is bad news. Why? We usually celebrate early pollen coming into the hive as it suggests that the queen is laying and the next generation of worker bees is being brooded. In most cases that early pollen proves to be an accurate statement of the colony’s expansion. In this case it suggests the possibility that the colony is queenless or failing. A queenless colony will tolerate drones through the winter and these drones will be mature enough to fly in Spring. Whether or not they will be fertile is another question! It is too early anyway to be thinking of matings as there are no queens about yet. I think this colony will be queenless! On the other hand if there is a queen and she is failing for some reason there may be a mixture of drones and workers being born from early egg laying. These drones may not be mature enough to fly yet. At this stage therefore, I do not know if I have 2020 wintered drones or 2021 drones from a failing queen.
On checking my records the queen should be a 2020 July mated queen. Her brood pattern was good and the bees’ temperament fine. Winter feeding was completed by the end of September and all should have been straight forward. Of course I can’t open the hive yet to explore what is wrong, if anything. There is nothing that I can do any way as the time of year is all wrong for remedial action. However a marker has been put on this hive for early examination and will be prioritised for investigation when the weather is warm enough. Being compromised by the time of year does not help but already I am planning what to do.
This hive had six seams of bees in January so currently there may be a lot of potentially useful workers to join up to a smaller colony in April as long as it’s disease free. If the queen is there she will need to be removed. If uniting is the outcome then newspaper will be used. When uniting bees I prefer to put the queen-right bees at the bottom on their original stand and the queenless bees above.
Keeping an eye on the hive entrances is part of routine management. As spring approaches more activity can be observed in the colony. If there is little or no activity in one hive while others are busy then it is an indication that all is not well in this hive. However it is not until first inspections that correct assessments can be made. Meanwhile check for access to food and feed any hungry colonies. Move to liquid feed as soon as there is nectar available if necessary but ensure that fondant does not run out on colonies that have been supported through the winter. Food consumption increases rapidly from now in healthy colonies. Robbing is also an issue in early spring and weak colonies are susceptible so again entrance observations may help. If bees are approaching a weaker colony to rob they hover with their legs trailing below, a bit like an under carriage, and then dash into the hive. This is a prime way for disease to spread.
Now is the time to prepare to put on the first supers. This is more for space to accommodate hatching bees than for storage of honey at this time of year and hopefully to deter the bees from thinking of swarming early in the season as the space alleviates pressure on the brood nest. Watching my bees at the hive entrance is also very therapeutic. After a challenging day at work there is something very relaxing about watching the comings and goings of the hive. Loads of pollen of different colours come in. Drones buzz about and workers remove hive debris. There is always something happening so spend a little time at the hive entrance as it can be so rewarding.