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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.

This month sees the start of foraging in earnest and also the start of swarming.

Although the oil seed rape was only just down the road the bees only worked it for pollen. The bees foraging for nectar went in the opposite direction. I am now beginning to wonder if modern varieties of rape have significantly reduced amounts of nectar.

Whatever it was they preferred, half the hives worked it vigorously. One hive got up to four supers and the others to two or three.

The colonies which only just made it through the winter have struggled to reach supering size but as two of these have 2016 queens and will be requeened this season.

The first swarm I was called to remove was a poor little bedraggled specimen hanging from a tree near Thaxted Fire Station. It had been there several days and was trying to set up home out in the open.

Thaxted swarm

It was nearly dark when I arrived so it had to wait until the next morning; a night of torrential rain and it was still raining next day. Half of them had been washed down in the night and were comatose mixed in with the recent lawn mowings. It was a ladder job to reach the little swarm and I then swept up as many as I could from the ground hoping that once they were returned to the bosom of their family they would become resuscitated. This did in fact work and most of them recovered. They were a pathetic little bunch when they were eventually hived; just over one frame of 14 x12 in a nucleus hive.

The rape finished flowering two weeks ago and any resulting honey would normally have started crystallizing by now. It’s all still clear which again leads me to conclude that the nectar came from elsewhere. The eventual analysis will be interesting.

I’ve had to perform three Pagden artificial swarms so far with another one to do this week. At the same time as creating the artificial swarm I also take a two-frame nucleus with a queen cell so I have a second string to my bow in the event of a loss on mating flight. The apiary is getting rather crowded now with sixteen hives.

Everything is late this year due to the very long winter; November to March. Colonies have been late building up but fortunately the rape has also been about two weeks late in flowering. This has enabled four colonies to be just about big enough for supering.

All the hives were spring cleaned between 14th and 20th April. This involved giving each colony a clean floor, brood box and crown board. All frames were inspected for disease and age and yellow spacers added to frames which had become too dark brown and needed replacing. These frames will be gradually worked to the edge of the box at each hive inspection and then replaced with foundation once any brood has emerged.

The dirty hives were scraped down and then scorched out with a blow-torch before being used again.

Stuart Roweth has produced yet another new version of his beegym and I will be trialing this in one of the larger colonies. (www.beegym.co.uk)

I have returned to the training scene this year with just two young lady students keen to learn about this absorbing hobby. Having just two students, rather than the six or seven in the past, will I am sure produce a much more rewarding learning environment.

The Asian Hornet justifiably continues to feature high in the list of threats. I have two lure traps, based on the National Bee Unit water-bottle design, hanging in the garden and charged with some of our own home-pressed apple juice. One by the hives and the other by the bee shed. Fortunately nothing yet.

The big question on my mind is whether 2018 will be a repeat of 2017 when it comes to oil seed rape. As the month comes to a close the rape has been on flower for two weeks now and the real-feel down in the apiary is -3, it’s blowing a gale and raining hard. It’s been like this for a week now and is set to continue.