A Year in the Apiary - February
Updated: Mar 18, 2021
It wasn't until Saturday 20 Feb that the ambient outside air temperature climbed enough for me to have the confidence to open the hives and see if my colonies had survived the Winter. This is a nervous time for beekeepers and colony loss is very prevalent. Even with plenty of stores, colonies can decline in health because of viruses and fungal infections, just like people who get flu in the Winter.
Do you remember that full fondant pack I put on one of the hives in January? Well, this is the same one a couple of weeks later. You can see that the bees are tucking right in. Next I am going to take the crown board off briefly to see just how many bees have survived the Winter........
Brilliant! This looks really good. The outside air temperature is 13°C and the cluster has broken. The next thing to check is if the Queen has survived. However, it is not warm enough to pull the frames out and search for her - that would chill the colony far too much and might send them into shock. I keep the crown board off just long enough to give a quick visual inspection to see how many bees I have and what kind of condition they are in. You can see the honeycomb on the frames is open and empty, which means they have eaten a lot of their stored honey over the winter. That's why they are eating the fondant.
You see that brown stuff on the edge of the frames and running around the edge of the box? That's propolis. We'll talk about that later in the season, but it is a resin that honeybees collect from tree bark. They use it to plug gaps, and seal joints. It also has antibacterial properties. Some beekeepers collect it for sale, but I don't. When it is new, it is very sticky - I call it 'bee glue'. It can be very strong stuff.
To find out if the Queen is still there, without looking for her, we need to do a little detective work. Now that the cluster has broken, the bees will be looking to get the Queen laying and for them to start raising some young. Remember that bees normally only live for around 40 days, but their inactivity allows them to live longer in Winter. Most of them are getting on for 90 days old by now. It is imperative that they raise new bees, or the colony will collapse very quickly. So, to be a detective, and check if we have a good Queen, we need to see if they are raising young, without looking!
To raise young, the bees need food and pollen. We know they have food, and it is likely that they will have some stored pollen. But, if it is warm enough, they will go out looking for pollen. Have we got any pollen available near the apiary?
Yes! I am so lucky that the land nearby has drifts and drifts of lovely snowdrops! And these have come into flower just as the bees are starting to become active. Look at the next picture to see just how close these lovely flowers are to the hives:
There they are just about 50 metres away in the distance. And lots of them too. This is a real treat for my bees. If they were very far away, and it was cold, they risk not being able to make the journey. But, getting back to our detective work, just because the snowdrops are there doesn't mean the bees are collecting pollen. So, we have to sit by the entrance and watch them come and go to see if they have any of the snowdrop pollen in their pollen baskets on their legs.
Can you see the two yellow pollen baskets on the legs of that worker bee just about to go into the hive? That's a great sign. They would not be bringing pollen in unless they were raising young bees. Detective work complete! (The other bee is either a guard bee or is about to fly off for the next load.)
Well, we have a good amount of bees in the hive, they have enough food, and I think the Queen is ok because they are collecting pollen. That's all I need to know in February, so I am going to leave them alone now. I just need to do the same check for my other 4 hives and the inspection is finished......
All done, and things are looking good across all 5 hives. Some are stronger than others, but that is to be expected. I am now crossing my fingers for warmer temperatures in March where maybe we can look at each of the frames individually to see progress. Prolonged cold air and rain is the major threat over the coming weeks.
Let's look in detail at how the honeybees are collecting Pollen and how they make 'bee bread' from it. If they just stored Pollen in the hive, it would quickly go mouldy. So, they mix it with a little honey, let it ferment, and the acidity that results prevents any bacterial or fungal spoiling. It's all in this next video.......