What to do in March:

Plan any planting and tidy up the apiary

  • Decide what you are going to plant/sow/grow for your bees this year.
  • Clear vegetation away from the front of the hives. A paving stone below the entrance ensures it stays clear and allows you to see the corpses; more than 100 deserves investigation.
  • While winter bees often live 150 days or more, by now many will be dying. Early in the month, check hive entrances for dead bees choking them. Entrance blocks upside-down help the living ones get out.
  • Later, remove woodpecker and mouse guards and turn entrance-blocks entrance side down. Keep hives tied down until the end of the month.

 Check Varroa levels and signs of disease

  • On a better day, put an upturned roof on the ground, lift the brood chamber on to it and scrape any dead bees off the floor. After reassembly, insert Varroa trays and monitor mite fall over four days; there should be no more than eight or nine per day; I would expect fewer. Clean or change solid floors. If you have both kinds, you will find the mesh floors are much drier.
  • Look for streaks of bee faeces around entrances. If there are any, the bees may be suffering from dysentery (a condition, not a disease) or Nosema; there are two Nosema diseases. If you suspect disease, consult a beekeeping microscopist. They will need no fewer than thirty older bees to check; it is a simple, quick process. Clean comb helps.

Prepare frames for the season ahead

  • Add foundation to the frames you have made up. In brood frames with Hoffman spacing (DN5 for Nationals), I suggest a sheet of wired foundation but in supers you might use starter strips. A strip an inch wide is enough, but the bees need about 6½ lb honey to make 1 lb wax so this will affect your honey crop. Starter strips should be just below top bars and parallel with them. When I first started, I tried three widely spaced vertical strips; the bees coped but produced some interesting cell patterns! I find unwired foundation in the supers is quite strong enough. Putting ten frames in supers i.e. Manley spacing, with strips or extra thin foundation, gives you the option of cut-comb honey. ½ lb cut-comb sells for the price of a pound of run honey; no extractor is needed, and it makes good presents in purpose-made see-through boxes. As the bees are reluctant to store pollen in drone cells, try a strip of drone foundation in supers. So many choices!

A swift first inspection

  • Only disturb the brood if it really is mild, 15°C/60°F. Swiftly check that the colony is building up as it should be; four good seams of bees is fine and, importantly, that they have enough food. As brood rearing will really be starting, more colonies starve at this time of year than at any other. If necessary, feed a medium strength syrup (1 kg: 1 litre); they should take it from a rapid feeder if you have good insulation above. Incidentally, there are often dire warnings about chilling brood; unless you split a colony and make a hash of it, chilling is extremely rare.
  • If there are no bees to be seen when the crown-board is lifted, start worrying. If your bees are dead, clear up everything straight away or close the hive until you can. This prevents robbing and/or disease transfer to other colonies; maybe not yours. The commonest cause of loss over winter is starvation. While even a well provisioned colony can become isolated from its stores, if there are now no stores and the bees are head down in the cells (see picture), it was starvation and your fault. You did not feed them well enough last August/September, or you did not check their weight over the winter; double fault!

  • There may or may not be a heap of dead bees and/or plenty of stores. If the cause is not obvious, it might be virus vectored by Varroa. Did you treat for Varroa last summer? Faeces may also be seen inside; I have already mentioned dysentery/Nosema. If you are sure that the cause of death was starvation, I would treat all comb with 80% ethanoic acid at 150ml/box. If in doubt, destroy the frames. Woodwork scorched with a blow-torch can be re-used with new frames and foundation.
  • At your first inspection, check queens are not drone-layers. If one is, she did not mate properly so has run out of sperm. If you think the colony is otherwise healthy, catch and kill her, move them next to another colony and unite. I once found a colony had replaced their queen too late in the year and had only drone larvae; it took me quite a long time to find out that there were three virgins, and squash them. Fortunately, I had not united them to another colony.
  • Do not be too concerned about the loss of a colony, experts lose them too. Average annual losses can be as high as 25% and, unless you neglected Varroa control and feeding last summer, it is unlikely to be your fault. Put it down to experience and look for some more bees later in the spring. Whatever happened, do not give up!

Photos:  Jeremy Quinlan