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.
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.