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A really mixed bag of weather this year. Some glorious spring weather early on and at the end of the month had me thinking that hive spring cleaning could start early again this year. It wasn’t quite warm enough to pass the ‘gardening in your shirt-sleeves’ test so they have been left undisturbed. All the hives are active on the warmer days as witnessed by the activity on flowers around the garden.

Although no varroa treatment is actively being pursued at this time, the drop tray gives a good indication of the size of the cluster and its position in the hive. Instead of looking for varroa one can inspect the spread of discarded cell cappings; where are they in the box? Are they moving around to find food?

Not having seen the green woodpecker for several months I decided to gamble on the netting and left it off. I kept a constant presence in the apiary however, inspecting for any signs of hive damage.

In the workshop, some equipment has been repaired or replacements made. I now have another design of clearer-board, two new crown boards and several new entrance blocks. The old entrance blocks were a good indication of what forty years of bee foot-fall wear can do to a piece of wood.

Probably one of the most useful jobs done this winter was to totally clean and recondition the smoker. Apart from the hive tool, the most used item in the tool box so it takes quite a hammering throughout the year.

I have had two swarm calls so far but they were only casts. This is a small secondary swarm headed by a virgin queen. They are bees never-the-less and by uniting them I have recouped one of my colony losses. They were treated with 24 hours of Apivar at the same time as hiving to knock down any varroa which had hitched a ride.

The girls have been foraging for oil-seed-rape honey but the nectar flow wasn’t as strong as I’d hoped due to the continual dry weather. This was also accompanied by foraging for hawthorn nectar on the may blossom. This is a rare honey which changes the aroma of the rape honey and crystallises very coarsely.

May blossom in the spinney

Queen cells had started appearing so now was the time to start making nucleus colonies to replace my winter losses. One QC in hive 3 was used to start a nucleus but the girls in their wisdom tore it down. A week later they had made 6 emergency queen cells.

One hive made three beautiful queen cells so I established another nucleus and gave the third cell to the other nucleus with the emergency cells.

The colony making the queen cells has not made any more so no need to do an artificial swarm.

During the CV lockdown, the road passing the apiary is no longer a tunnel of air pollution so the bees can can forage right up to the roadside.

Another lockdown effect that we have noticed is that without the noise pollution we can hear the whole garden humming.

On 12th of May, there were bees all round the garden pond so I knew the rape had finished. In the absence of nectar to fan for cooling and also thirst quenching they had resorted to water. I put clearer-boards on early next morning so I could do the first extraction the following day.

A second brief extraction for just two tubs and that was that. The June gap had already started a week before the end of May.

Although on the surface it looked as if all 10 hives had survived the winter, the first spring inspections revealed otherwise. Two were queenless and two had drone-laying queens. The fifth was so weak it really didn’t deserve to survive.

Result; I have lost half my stock. Only once before in over 40 years have I ever lost colonies in the winter.

What was strange was that queenless hives 5 and 6 continued to forage keenly bringing in both nectar and pollen. The latter is said to indicate a colony being queen-right. Test frames of eggs from another colony were inserted into both. Had they no source of queen pheromones they would have immediately started to draw out emergency queen cells. No such cells were developed which was a weird phenomenon. The colonies continued to dwindle as no eggs were being laid.

They had to be united with another colony but a normal unite wouldn’t work as they thought they already had a queen. Their population was used to supplement the abysmally small, but queenright hive 2. Bit by bit they were moved closer together until they could be shaken out in front of 2. First I caged the queen in hive 2 just as a precaution and shook out the smaller colony and took their hive right away. A few days later I then did the same with the larger. The result is that hive 2 now has sufficient bees to care for brood and the queen is merrily laying away. By the beginning of May they should be large enough to take a super.

The rape came on flower and the first supers have gone onto the five healthy hives. This is where the excitement starts to build and we see the distinct difference between colonies. By the last week of April, hive 3 has three supers and hive 4 is still on its first.

The month has been gloriously sunny and as I gardened each day, the air was full of the gentle hum of the girls hard at work in the greengage branches and down at ground level on the wallflowers.

Of course, continual sunshine meant that the nectar dried up and by week four they were getting a little cross. A solid day’s rain in the last week has hopefully corrected the situation.

However, only half the usual number of bees means half the usual amount of honey so they’ll have to work twice as hard. Maybe the lack of air pollution due to CV lockdown will give them extra impetus.

To those I promised bees this spring, don’t hold your breath.

Four of the hives have now been spring-cleaned. A freshly scorched box, floor, entrance block and crown board are positioned alongside the hive and frames are removed one by one, inspected, scraped clean and placed in the new box. Halfway through the exercise, boxes are exchanged whilst they are easier to lift, and the remaining frames moved across. Hopefully the queen will be seen and the egg laying rate assessed. Unfortunately the first hive I did this year had a drone-laying queen. How could I tell? The larvae and brood in worker-size cells had domed cappings like full-sized drone brood. The quickest and easiest way to rescue what remained of the colony was to unite rapidly. The whole colony was shaken out during the afternoon and the workers wasted no time in seeking refuge in the neighbouring hive.

Comb with drone cappings in worker cells

At the time of cleaning, the Apivar has been removed as the weekly varroa counts have dropped to zero or the odd 1.

This has been the month when the world was hit by the CV19 virus. Not only were supermarkets hit by panic buying but honey sales as well. In four days I sold an average month’s number of jars. No sooner had I instituted rationing and put a notice in the porch to that effect than the government introduced a lock-down so sales ceased.

The foragers are more interested in pollen rather than nectar. The hives I’ve cleaned still have loads of honey stores but are in need of pollen for brood food. I’ve removed several nice clean frames full of honey and replaced them with drawn comb in order to give more laying capacity. The honey-full combs are being sterilized and will be used as food for any swarms.

The Dartington hive is finished. I’ve cut some letter-box slots for the varroa tray and finished painting it. Supers will have to wait as doing real beekeeping now calls.