Hot February Bad for Bees?

plum tree blossom
plum tree blossom

Hotter than Athens

A couple of days ago we had a Winter heatwave in the UK courtesy of air being brought up from much further South. On 26 February the Evening Standard reported, “UK February temperature record broken for second day running.” Where I keep my bees, the temperature reached 19 degrees Celsius (66 deg F), and we had some glorious blue skies and pleasant sunshine.

Suddenly blossom is on the trees and nature is waking up. I saw a queen bumblebee flying and found a recently awakened queen wasp groggily staggering by my fireplace. Sadly, the weather has already returned to something more normal; cool and rainy. Last year we had the “Beast from the East” severe weather in March, which brought snow and ice for a week. It is not unusual to have frost and snow in March or even April here. I suspect that queen bumblebees and queen wasps that were fooled into waking up early will have a difficult time once we revert to more normal weather. Fruit blossom may be damaged by frost, leading to lost fruit.

False start?

Many beekeepers were happily posting videos of their bees being very active during the warm period. My bees were no different. They were collecting a lot of pollen and flying in large numbers. Some people were even tempted to inspect their colonies, which was indeed possible given the temperature, but I’m not sure how wise it was. I suppose if you had spare queens then it was a good time to replace drone layers. Otherwise, why disturb them? There should be a good reason for inspecting a colony, and during the swarm season regular inspections are needed to spot signs of swarming intent, but we are still in February. My comments are based on my area near Manchester in England. I fully understand that further South Spring comes earlier.

A lot of the bees currently occupying our hives are the Winter bees which were from eggs laid in September and October of last year. They are getting old and will die off soon. When the bees are tightly clustered in mid-Winter, they use up very little energy because there is little or no brood to keep warm, and they are not flying.

Danger of starvation

The queen will be laying eggs in increasing numbers as the colony ramps up for Spring and Summer, which means there is more brood to keep warm. The brood nest needs to be held at around 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees F) which requires a lot more work by the bees, so they consume a lot more fuel in the form of honey. From now into mid-April it is usually a dangerous time when many colonies will die of starvation. They are flying more, keeping brood warm, and consuming a lot of honey. Beekeepers must check the weight of their hives and provide more food in the form of fondant if they are too light; otherwise the poor bees won’t make it.

The recent burst of glorious weather will have triggered some bees to raise more brood than they may have done under normal conditions, which will mean that they consume more stores. We don’t know what nature has lined up for us this season; will it be a warm early Spring or a cold, wet one? Time will tell. If we get a Summer like last year, I won’t complain, although perhaps a little more rain would be perfect. Once drought sets in there is no chance of a nectar flow.

Shook swarm in April?!

There seems to be a fashion in some corners of bee land for doing a “shook swarm” in April to change the comb in the hive. I am staggered by this, and can’t see why anyone would want to cause this much disruption to a colony. The commercial honey farmers that I know would never dream of doing such a thing, and they earn a living from keeping bees, so I’m inclined to side with them. A bee farmer I know who has European Foulbrood (EFB) in his area used to use shook swarms to try to control the disease but found that it was not effective, and now he burns hives that get the disease.

He replaces two or three old combs each year with foundation late in the season after the drones have gone. There is no massive loss of brood or disturbance to the colony at an essential time in its development. As long as disease is not present, there is nothing wrong with old comb, but in an EFB area, it makes sense to be cautious.

Beekeepers, especially novices, are very keen to meddle with their bees. I used to be that way, and I was a liability to them. Now I try to work with the bees not against them, and as it happens my colonies are stronger and make more honey for me than before.

8 thoughts on “Hot February Bad for Bees?

  1. I removed the space reducing ‘dummy frames’ because of the nice weather(18°C-19!!). Didn’t seem wise or needed to disturb the broodnest, so I lest it at that. Belgium is weatherwise in the same boat as you are in. I’m hoping that the ‘real spring’ will be good. For now, all my hives are keeping their insulation on. As you said it’s impossible to predict the weather.
    Thanks for sharing, good info

    • Thanks for reading and commenting! I used to live in Belgium as a child – at SHAPE near Mons 🙂

      • Ah, I’m Flemish so I don’t know much about Wallonia. If you ever want to go back there though, less than an hour of driving away in Chimay there are some interesting conservation projects going on for the Black bee.
        The weather here has gone back to regular February grey this morning. Being careful pays off!

  2. The shook-swarm technique is often recommended by National bee inspectors for strong colonies. I have done it before and always found my colonies bounced back well afterwards. Another beekeeper I know who gets big honey crops does annual shook swarms in early March. I can understand why a commercial beekeeper with hundreds of hives doesn’t want to do it, but for a hobby beekeeper it can be a good method of getting clean, disease free comb and reducing varroa too – which replacing two or three combs at a time doesn’t do.

    Having said all that I don’t especially enjoy doing the shook swarm as I do feel guilty about destroying brood and it is a faff! I may switch to doing the Bailey comb change instead most years, even though it doesn’t have the same benefits in reducing varroa numbers.

    • Hi Emily 🙂 I just don’t get it; I know it’s a big BBKA thing, but it has a whiff of overkill about it. From the bee inspector point of view if everyone keeps doing shook swarms the chances of foulbrood outbreaks drops, which makes their lives easier. The alternative is for beekeepers to be educated so that they can identify disease and treat varroa at the appropriate time!

      If there is no disease there is no need to change comb, unless it is really knackered.

      The idea that a colony starting off in April with foundation will grow bigger and do better than the same colony with a healthy brood nest is nonsensical. OK, if there is disease, fine, but otherwise the colony with brood is streets ahead.

      It crops up here from time to time:

      • If foulbrood outbreaks fall, isn’t that a good thing? Preventing foulbrood in the first place is better than spotting it once it arrives. And nosema spores are invisible on comb, so disease isn’t necessarily obvious.

        It seems to me that a shook swarmed colony could do better (in terms of health) because it loses a large percentage of its varroa when the brood is destroyed. If you look at varroa’s natural host, Apis cerana, cerana bees swarm more frequently and have smaller colonies than Apis Mellifera which helps keep varroa in check.

      • Fair enough, there’s always a healthy range of opinions in beekeeping! Have a great weekend 🙂

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