Karl Colyer

The queen’s egg-laying rate will rapidly increase in March, putting a precarious burden on the dwindling food resources in the hive, and the weather may still not permit successful foraging.

Resources and forage
March can be a very testing month for the bees. With depleting honey stores, increasing brood volumes requiring copious food resources, an ever-aging population of overwintering bees and the vagaries of the UK weather, the bees are arguably at their greatest risk of starvation during this month. Even if the weather is kind enough to permit a few days of foraging, there may not be the nectar and pollen available nearby to even keep up with the rate of resources consumption in the hive. If you can heft and feel the weight, see the bees consuming syrup or fondant or can peep into the crown board hole and see no bees, it is better to leave the bees alone rather than delve in out of curiosity. Last month, open feeding in early spring to prevent starvation, was mentioned. This time of year, if feeding is necessary, it is more hygienic to use a contact feeder as it reduces the spread of diseases.

Impact of warmer weather
Sporadic warm weather has an impact on a colony. Bees will tend to break cluster in warming weather and may even do some housekeeping, such as disposing of dead bees at the entrance. Some bees may go on foraging or cleansing flights and either not come back or return with little or no bounty. The queen may more rapidly enhance her egg-laying rate as a result of the warmth, light and increased movement in the hive. All of this increased activity consumes stores at an ever-faster rate. 

If the daytime temperatures venture to around 12°C or more and the weather is favourable, it may be worth quickly looking inside a colony if you think it is at risk of starvation. Do not go looking for the queen; evidence of a queen can be seen with eggs, larvae or sealed brood present. If you do look inside, you may be able to put the queen excluder back in place and even put some supers on if you wish. If you take the crown board off, remember the orientation so that the propolis joint can be refitted to best effect. Bees may not be able to re-propolise a poorly refitted crown board in the cooler weather to keep the warmth and humidity in. The mouse guard can come off if you had one in place.

Are the bees flying, is pollen coming into the hive? Are the dandelions out yet? Are willow trees in bloom close by? If yes, that is wonderful news for the bees. If no and the hive is light on stores, you may have little choice other than to feed as necessary; syrup if it is going to be warm for a few days or fondant if the outlook is cold.

Records and decision-making
Hopefully, you will have some kind of record card for each of your hives, particularly if you have more than four or five hives, as it is easy to get confused on how each of them is doing. Consider having a general record to note things such as when you see the bees flying. The warm weather around Christmas and early in the New Year meant that the bees were flying and consuming more stores than usual. If you have a few hives, make a note of which bees come out first and if any are without flying bees. All this information can help you decide whether to inspect, heft or feed your bees at this time of year.

A dead colony is always a sad sight. If the bees are clustered with their heads in the cells, they will have starved. This may be because all the honey has been consumed (starvation) or they were unable to move cluster to find honey elsewhere in the brood box (isolation starvation). If there are signs of brood and eggs in a dead colony, it is possible that disease could have been the influencing factor in their demise. Take photos if this happens or you are unsure. Seek advice. As a BBKA member, help is never far away.

Get to Know Your Bees
Why should hive inspections be brief or postponed at this time of year? Brood is best raised at 35.5°C with a humidity of around 50%. Opening a hive quickly changes this situation and the bees have to expend a lot of energy, i.e. food stores, to reheat the brood and to fill any gaps made. Bees will require water to dilute their honey for consumption. This can be from a local source external to the hive or from the humidity in the hive. Everything is a delicate balance. There is a useful saying to remember: “each inspection costs a jar of honey”. It is particularly relevant at this time of year!

Your bees may be a little defensive if you choose to peer into the hive. Make sure you are relaxed and prepared to deal with this. If you do delve into the hive, there are some things to look out for:

  • Are the larvae looking healthy, white, bright and curled up tight? If not, research EFB.
  • Are the sealed brood caps flat or slightly domed, not sunken? If not, research AFB.
  • Are you aware of the Varroa count? If not, use an indicator board of some kind and refer to the National Bee Unit website for what to do next. Remember, Varroa is also a vector for disease.

Photos:  Karl Colyer