Life can’t always be honey

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Pepper’s colony had eaten their first block of winter fondant. The hive had lost weight and it was possible to heft the boxes slightly off the stand. I stared down the hole of the crownboard into the dark abyss of empty honeycomb. There was no sign of activity. Then a single worker crawled up a wall and stopped a few inches beneath the crownboard. She stared back as I slowly lowered a new block of fondant over the hole.

The neighbouring hive belonging to Pepper’s daughter, Peppermint, had become heavier over winter. The workers seemed to have made good use of the milder days to find forage for stores. I lifted the insulation to discover a small crowd of bees had found their way under the roof. They looked like young bees judging from their soft fuzzy thoraxes and perfectly shiny folded wings. They were too busy exploring the new space to notice me. I put back the insulation and closed the roof.

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Melissa’s hive had plenty of fondant under the roof and the boxes were still too heavy to heft. This is our longest-standing hive which has been carried through five winters by the same line of queens. I try not to think too much about Melissa’s hive in winter other than hope for the best in spring.

I slipped the varroa boards under the hives to monitor the mite drop for February. It was a windy and damp afternoon, the sort of day to stay at home in the dry and warm. There was little activity outside the hive entrances, although Emily and I had seen the bees flying for a few weekends in January.

Trying my best not to disturb the colonies, I quietly knelt down at the entrances to look through the mouseguards and saw light shining under the metal mesh floors. This reassured me that piles of dead bodies weren’t accumulating at the bottom of the hive and blocking the entrance for surviving workers. But to prove I wasn’t as stealthy as I thought, workers from all three hives flew out to investigate my activity. They soon settled down and perched on the chicken wire wrapped around the hive boxes.

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“Life can’t always be honey,” my grandmother had said in the last few days of her own incredible life. It’s true. In February the frosts aren’t quite finished even as the first crocuses and daffodils come into bloom. The two strongest colonies had plentiful stores going into winter and even the weakest had sufficient to last till early spring, but was it enough for a mild winter when the queen continued to lay and the workers continued to consume honey almost as they did in summer? On the coldest days in February the bees would need to keep warm while sending out workers to reach the fondant or remnants of honey at the furthest frames of the hive. On warmer days the workers could take advantage of the year’s early forage of hazel catkins and snowdrops to replace their stores.

Thinking of my grandmother’s words at the entrance of the hives, I whispered to the bees to persevere for a few more weeks, because it might be difficult now but a good spring is around the corner.

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26 thoughts on “Life can’t always be honey

  1. Beautiful picture of the apiary, Emma. Glad to hear the bees are hanging on. I think everyone north of the equator is ready for spring to arrive. We’re still waiting for the first blooms, hopefully in a few weeks.

  2. Lovely that you saw workers from all three hives. Hope they can stay dry and warm as storm Imogen passes over us, sounds so nasty out there right now! What is that pretty nature book you’re reading?

    • Storm Imogen has been blowing down our chimney all evening, but the pond fish are having a good time. I took advantage of the rain to take out a bucket of pond water which is already filling up again – a natural water change 😉

      The book is the Nature Notes of an Edwardian Lady bought in a bookshop in Hay-on-Wye.

  3. Wonderful to catch this update dear Emma.. and so nice to know all your bees are doing ok.. I have seen one or two bees about on the blossoms of a bush of ours that is in flower.. The mild wet winter is confusing Nature.. We too have crocus and daffs out early by a good month for them up here..
    I hope you are well and are your hives are all ok in this horrible weather we are having storm after storm..
    Wishing you a Wonderful week..
    Sue xx

  4. The bees sound as if they are coping well with this strange weather. Mellissa’s hive sound like very hard workers. I have read that hazel pollen is very important at this time of year. I keep looking on our hazel trees and we have quite a lot around us but I’ve not seen any bees on them yet. Amelia

    • Yes, they have been through a few mild winters and on-off cold spells now. They are adaptable creatures, but they try so hard I hope they will get a good spring. I’ve not seen any bees on catkins either, but it does feel chillier and even the bird feeders are less visited. It will be nice to have the garden buzzing with bees again 🙂

  5. Your grandmother sounds like she was a very wise lady! It doesn’t sound as though the bees have had much rest this winter, do they continue producing more young bees or concentrate on keeping themselves going?

    • Without doing weekly hive inspections through winter, I can’t say for sure. I have seen younger workers and drones around throughout winter, in fewer numbers than in summer. Sightings of drone could also mean a queen has become a drone layer over winter, or a queen has been lost resulting in some laying workers. Emily and I briefly opened Melissa’s hive yesterday to remove a gap between the super and crownboard for the bees to reach the fondant easier. We saw that the colony was active and well and not completely clustered as might be expected in winter even though it was quite cold. So I don’t think the bees have rested completely this winter but it won’t stop them from working hard in spring. 🙂

  6. I wasn’t sure if the hazelnut pollen would be a good bee source. It’s an odd thing to plant a wind pollinated plant, hoping it will be good for the bees. Hurray! (I’ve already planted over a hundred hazelnuts, with more to come each year for a few years yet!

    • Over a hundred hazelnuts! Of course, the Druids prized these nuts for bringing wisdom to those who ate them. And as recently as the 1950s, picking hazelnuts would bring a modest income to villagers in some parts of England. May your hazel trees sprout and bring you and your bees good fortunes! 😉

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