By Marcella Craven, Outdoor Work Technician and Beekeeper
Beekeepers all over the country watch their hives intently at this time of year.
All the long winter we have fed our bees with fondant, checked that the hives haven’t blown over (at Bedales we weighted our roofs down with slabs during the severe winds and we still had one fly off)! We treated the hives for disease. We also worried that pests might have got into the hives, silently wrecking the comb, eating stores or consuming bees! Woodpeckers, badgers, mice, wasps and worse of all, man-made poisons, insecticides and sprays all present a serious risk to the hives.
This year the weather has not been good for bees. Wet, mild weather makes hives damp. Bees can’t fly to make cleansing flights, and the colony can chill easily. Global warming is changing our seasons and this causes a difference to the forage available, and the weather which a bee needs to be able to venture out and retrieve it. I have observed that life for a colony is complex and often mirrors our human problems.
The relationship of the beekeeper and the bee colony is one built on trust and hope. The bees trust us to provide them with a safe environment, we hope that the bees will cope with the adversity that surviving a long cold, wet winter in a small wooden box will bring. We can only wonder in the winter months, if the bees have survived? Was the colony large enough to keep itself warm? If it was weak it might succumb to disease. Did they have enough stores? Has the Queen died? Without her the whole colony will slowly perish, losing heart without her pheromone and presence.
That is why watching the hives at the time of year, with the first warm spring sunshine on the front of the hives is so heart-warming. It is such an amazing thing to see the bees begin to fly and to know that the bees, who have been on earth seven million years longer than humans, are still here with the promise of pollination, that essential role they play for us in providing the flowers, trees, fruit and vegetables we enjoy and need. We are after all, reliant on these tiny, hardworking insects.
At Bedales we have seven colonies. Most beekeepers expect to lose a colony or two over winter, for all of the reasons stated above, so we built our colonies up from five last year. I am thrilled to report that all seven colonies have survived.
We share so many things in common with bees and enjoying the spring sunshine is definitely one of them. I have watched the bees come out of their dark hives, and just sit on the front of the boxes, soaking up the sun’s rays, warming themselves and orientating themselves with their surroundings. Bees search of food continually, they are now bringing in the spring pollen, which means the Queen will be starting to lay eggs to regenerate the hive with new life.
As it was a warm day, I opened up a small colony which overwintered in a polynuc (this is a polystyrene mini hive, which provides greater insulation than an average wooden hive). I moved the colony into a brood box to give them room to grow and build comb so that they have the best chance of swelling in numbers and taking advantage of the spring productivity and plenty. I found the Queen and marked her with special paint, this will make it easier to find her next time we inspect the colony. There were stores, so the bees had collected their food and sealed it with wax ready to ration through the winter.
I felt privileged to see the inside of the nuc, and not to be guessing what was going on inside. As the weather warms, I will inspect each hive on a weekly basis, caring for them and helping them cope with the strange world that they, and we find ourselves in.
They encapsulate the Bedales motto and are a beautiful and inspirational emblem.