April showers bring May flowers

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Ups and downs in beekeeping are about as surprising as the rain in April. After Pepper’s colony had been lost to winter in February, Emily and I delayed the comb change in March due to the cold weather and dwindling sizes of our two surviving hives.

It was a puzzle. These small colonies were just too big for a nuc and yet too weak to keep themselves warm in a regular hive. They needed something inbetween. I had bought a roll of foil insulation that you might use for insulating lofts, which I cut into squares with a pen knife and wrapped around the dummy boards and old empty brood frames to keep both nests warmer. The bees weren’t taking their syrup in the chilly weather either. I left the winter fondant under the roof with more insulation, closed up and hoped for the best.

Andy Pedley took a photo of my insulated dummy board. The other beekeepers were somewhat impressed by my use of odds and sods, at last my induction as a beekeeper was complete.

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Meanwhile, regular readers of mine and Emily’s blogs will know that my hive partner has gone on maternity leave to look after a very special little drone. Congratulations to Emily and Drew on the arrival of their wonderful baby boy Thomas who you can read all about on Emily’s blog!

I haven’t told the bees yet, but here’s what they did next.

April

On the odd bright day in April when I opened up the hive it was like inspecting winter colonies. The bees were clustered over two or three frames with some patchy brood. They were being kept alive through warmth and food, but their situation wasn’t improving much. I managed to reduce Melissa’s colony into one box when visiting the apiary with Jonesy on a Sunday. The colony had nested in the super over winter because it was the warmest spot at the top of the hive beneath the fondant, but they had left behind a couple of frames of bees in the brood box below.

I removed the old brood box and put the super holding the nest on the floor with a new brood box and frames above shaking in the rest of the bees. The forecast was fairly warm for the week ahead and I hoped the bees would be encouraged to move onto the fresh comb, but a week later they had not touched it. It become cold and rainy again, and I abandoned the attempted Bailey comb change.

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I could hardly blame the bees. When the nights dropped to 1-4•C and daytime temperatures peaked at 9-12•C, it was a lot to ask these small colonies to keep the hive warm, and draw new comb, and forage for new stores, and rear brood.

It was barely warm enough for some humans to want to go outdoors, but I managed to encourage my dad to the apiary to help clean-up some hive equipment. He enjoyed it once there. He does like to blowtorch stuff.

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And seemed a bit disappointed when the job was done.

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The queens hid away in April with no sight of new eggs being laid. It was only the workers bringing home pollen and calmly carrying on with their tasks inside the hives which gave me any reason to believe that the colonies were still queen-right. The brood and bees that were there were largely workers, not drones, which also gave me hope that neither the queens had become drone layers nor the workers started laying.

May

The queens surprised me for May Day. It was the first time this year that Melissa had been spotted as Jonesy pointed over my shoulder at the queen poking her bottom in a cell. Peppermint too was seen walking steadily across the comb and I hadn’t seen her since March.

Melissa is somewhere to be spotted in this photo taken by Jonesy, towards the right of the frame there is a faint pink dot revealing the queen. Despite my joy in seeing her, I didn’t keep her out for long. “Put her back before she gets shy,” said Jonesy.

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The days and nights were getting warmer. When opportunity allowed I transferred the frames of brood from both Melissa’s and Peppermint’s colonies into clean brood boxes, standing on clean floors with a clean crownboard and roof above. As the bees were still only occupying three or four frames in the nest, I filled the gaps with insulated dummy boards. I’m pretty sure that the extra insulation in our hives has been vital in keeping them alive this far.

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A normal comb change wasn’t going to happen this year, the colonies just weren’t up for it. Instead, I would swop the insulated dummy boards and old brood frames for new foundation as the nests, hopefully, expanded in May and June. I feel it is going to be a year of slow progress for our bees.

Peppermint’s ladies had made quite a fuss when I moved them. I had caged the queen on the comb so I knew where she was during the transfer and her workers were not happy about that. “It would be much easier if you could just put up a sign with an arrow saying ‘This way’,” said Pat who happened to be walking past me. I agreed.

If April showers bring May flowers then I hope the bees will be as bountiful as the forage. Just to be safe, I will keep their syrup topped up and the nests insulated till both hives fully recover.

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Pat kindly gave me a bottle of Hive Alive to add to the syrup. I had noticed a few spots of dysentery on the old brood boxes and thought the bees needed a tonic to boost their health.

The apiary was also starting to spring back to life with some hives small and weak like ours and others already booming with bees. John Chapple brought over some drone comb culled from a colony for varroa control. I felt sorry for the drones but good husbandry can be helpful to the overall health of the hive.

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John Chapple and Alan Gibbs have been kindly caretaking some new arrivals at the apiary. These beautiful emerald hives used to belong to Alan Kime who sadly passed away, but thanks to the hard work of John and Alan his bee legacy has continued. I sometimes watch their activity at the entrance after inspecting my hives and they are very nice bees.

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In the garden

At home in the garden I was having more luck with mason bees than honeybees. A reward for patience came in April when I saw the first mason bee emerge from his cocoon.

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Since then almost all the masons have chewed a hole through their mud-capped tubes and are busy foraging plants at the bottom of the garden. I caught this loved-up couple on a dandelion.

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I took advantage of the sunshine last week to tackle the plot at the back and divided the land between humans and bees: half vegetable patch and half wild flower meadow. I left the dandelions and forget-me-nots for the bees and butterflies; John thinks I’m crazy ‘weeding’ around the weeds. 

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The new insect mansion is also taking shape thanks to my dad’s donation of three wooden pallets and some bricks. I hope to have it finished next week in time for the mason bees to start making their new homes.

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My other life as a backyard birder has attracted a sparrowhawk to the garden. I was surprised to see him one day from the kitchen window. He sat conspicuously next to the feeders and the sparrows watched him from a safe distance.

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From the birds and the bees to pond life, we lost our oldest fish Richard coming out of winter.

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I don’t know much about ponds, yet, but think Richard died of swim bladder brought on by old age. I found him floating on his side and after looking up advice on goldfish forums, gently lifted him out to try an Epsom salt bath for five minutes. He didn’t struggle and the bath made no difference. I put the poor fish in a shallow glass dish and placed him on a shelf in the pond to die peacefully. The other goldfish came over to have a look, but couldn’t disturb him too much in his glass bed. I told them visiting hours were six to nine. He was dead by morning and buried by John beneath a bush.

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A few days later I cleaned the pond pump, pulled out some weed, and gave the fish a water change. Two frogs had found the pond over winter and provided a frogspawn buffet for the fish. I scooped out half the spawn into buckets to give the tadpoles a chance. You can see the fish were rather curious about where the tadpoles had gone.

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The frogspawn has since hatched and I now have two tubs of tadpoles sitting by the pond.

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I’ve fed them crumbled fish pellets and lettuce leaves, which they love, along with half water changes each week and they seem to be thriving. It looks like I may end up having more frogs than bees this summer.

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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.

A beekeeper’s notes for December

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Winter hasn’t come for the bees. They were enjoying the mild weather today bringing home lots of pollen. A drone sat comfortably on a hive roof looking well fed and a young-looking worker was resting on the side of the hive boxes. Else was over-the-moon about the unseasonably warm weather, which brought back memories of Christmas in Australia. She produced a box of deliciously festive cup cakes to cheer up the British beekeepers complaining about the prospect of a sunny Christmas.

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The cakes were baked by Else’s friend and were scrumptious with raisin-and-spice sponge and frosted-chocolate icing.

The unseasonably warm weather meant it was unlikely that the hives would be treated with oxalic acid today. The bees hadn’t slowed down for Christmas. “One hive is heavier now than when I put on the fondant in October,” said Andy. He had treated his hives last month during a brief cold snap on a day when the bees were less likely to be active and protest about being disturbed.

Oxalic acid is usually given as a midwinter treatment when the days are frosty and there is little or no brood inside the hive. It’s most effective when applied during broodless periods, or as close to broodless as you can get, because the varroa have fewer places to hide. The fixed points on the beekeeping calendar are turning as the seasons become uncertain, however. Perhaps it’s best to say the bees can be treated with oxalic acid when the weather is wintry and conditions inside the hive are right, rather than in the winter. That’s assuming you treat your hives to oxalic acid.

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After tea and cake, Emily and I checked that our three hives still had enough stores. Pepper’s and Melissa’s hives were a generous weight when hefted and Peppermint’s hive had also pulled off the trick of getting heavier since putting on the fondant. The hive entrances were as busy as a mild spring day and the weight of the hives suggest the bees might be finding nectar as well as pollen to fill up the boxes.

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Melissa’s bees has tucked into their fondant despite having two supers of honey at the end of autumn. These bees do like their sugar.

That done, we got the bees ready for Christmas with tinsel and festive decorations. The apiary needed a little sparkle if the frost wasn’t coming this year.

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Beekeepers take note for December – it’s the tinsel that gets the bees through winter.

A beekeeper’s notes for November

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In November the leaves fall from the trees and the drones fall from the hive. The trees are preparing to rest for winter as their leaves drop to the ground, and the bees are getting ready to close the hive factory as the drones are thrown outdoors.

Autumn and winter are good times of the year for consolidation. The beekeeper can take stock of the hives and colonies, clear up apiaries, clean up equipment, disturb a few spiders, and plan ahead for the next season.

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The ebb and flow of the seasons are not constant, however, and the points on the beekeeping calendar can move each year. The autumn syrup may be poured a month earlier in August for late summer rains. The mouseguard might be pinned to the entrance a month later in November for the workers still bringing home baskets of pollen. Wasps may be seen gliding around the creepers beside the hive, and drones found sitting on the roof as late as December.

This sometimes makes the question “What does a beekeeper do in winter?” a difficult one to answer.  This is because a beekeepers’ checklist is only a guide to the beekeeping year and not a set of rules.

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My step-nephew Sam films what beekeepers do in winter at the apiary, while Andy Pedley tells a visitor what the bees do in winter.

Emily put on the mouseguards at the hive entrances when she noticed that fewer bees were carrying home pollen. The hives were wrapped around in chicken wire as a precaution against possible woodpeckers watching from the bare branches overhead. We tackled the task of removing the syrup from Peppermint’s hive and replacing the feed with fondant, despite a crowd of protesting workers, because the days had become cold and short.

Winter also comes to London despite talk about our city’s microclimate and of bees making queens to swarm on a warm October’s day, which, of course, might happen. But if it’s true the season can sometimes be mild, overall there are fewer days when either bees or beekeepers feel like going outside. On those days both bees and humans are glad of a well-stocked cupboard, an insulated roof, and a secured entrance.

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Every autumn and winter, Emily and I will ask each other “Shall I bring more syrup?”, “Have you got pins for the mouseguard?”, and “Do you think the fondant can go on?”, and each week our plans change as frequently as the weather. We both know that between the two of us the bees will be ready for winter as and when they need to be. We both watch the days and the bees, and tick off items from our checklist when it feels right to do so.

A beekeeper’s notes for November often turn to thoughts of what we have and haven’t done, none of which matters now, and then to dreams of the bees returning in spring.

A beekeeper’s notes for February

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On Saturday 14th February I saw the white snowdrops in flower and the purple crocuses opening. Winter aconite and catkins of the hazel and the willow will also blossom bringing the year’s first forage for bees.

Ealing beekeepers were at the scout hut for their monthly meeting. I stood outside the entrance of the hives and noticed not a single bee took to the wing. The stillness made all other movements sharper.

I watched a red-breasted robin hopping in the thorny foliage and breathed as a magpie swooped down to pick a twig to build her nest.

I found a spider crawling on the fondant under the roof of a hive and two slugs sliding in the dead leaves beneath the floor of another.

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Alan Gibbs arrived just as I had put under varroa boards to check this month’s mite drop. He had come with his spade on this cold, rainy day to lay more paving stones in the communal area. Betty Gibbs was sensibly waiting in the car outside the apiary, reading a book.

We then looked at the fondant under the roofs. I had brought more in case it was needed, but Alan said they had “quite enough”.

A chilly February can be a time of uncertainty for beekeepers with thoughts of wakeful bees kept inside the hive as the winter larder runs bare. I gave each hive a heft for weight of stores. In particular Melissa’s and Pepper’s were very heavy, while Chili’s and Chamomile’s were lighter. Nothing to do but observe, February is also a time to rest and wait as everything unfolds.

With that, I said goodbye to Alan and the bees, and waved to Betty on my way out. John too was sensibly waiting for me in a warm car. There were flowers, cards and chocolates sitting at home.

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This is a short and sweet post like the month.

Emily and I have decided to use paper records for our hives again. Our blogs provide an online diary of beekeeping, and I’ve found electronic records or apps sometimes difficult to access or just fiddly to use on my phone during a hive inspection. Also, it seems better to keep records under the hive roofs at the apiary, in case other beekeepers need to read them.

Here’s a start on preparing our hive record sheets for the season ahead, based on others we have used and ideas for monthly reminders. Let me know in your comments if there’s anything you would include, I’d be interested to know how to improve them:

Hive records 2015 pdf
Hive records 2015 Word doc

And a note on something less practical and more frilly… Sometimes there is snow in February, which makes me remember my favourite passage from The Snow Queen, A Tale is Seven Stories, by Hans Christian Andersen.

In the second story about a little boy and a little girl, Kay and Gerda sit by frozen windows to watch the snowstorm. They lay heated copper farthings on the windowpane to make a peep-hole to look outside…


”Look! The white bees are swarming,” said the old grandmother. “Have they a queen bee, too?” asked the little boy, for he knew that there was a queen among the real bees. “Yes, indeed they have,” said the grandmother. “She flies where the swarm is thickest. She is biggest of them all, and she never remains on the ground. She always flies up again to the sky. Many a winter’s night she flies through the streets and peeps in at the windows, and then the ice freezes on the panes into wonderful patterns like flowers.”

“Oh yes, we have seen that,” said both children, and then they knew it was true.

“Can the Snow Queen come in here?” asked the little girl.

“Just let her come,” said the boy, “and I will put her on the stove, where she will melt.”

But the grandmother smoothed his hair and told him more stories.

In the evening when little Kay was at home and half undressed, he crept up on to the chair by the window, and peeped out of the little hole. A few snowflakes were falling, and one of these, the biggest, remained on the edge of the window-box. It grew bigger and bigger, till it became the figure of a woman, dressed in the finest white gauze, which appeared to be made of millions of starry flakes. She was delicately lovely, but all ice, glittering, dazzling ice. Still she was alive, her eyes shone like two bright stars, but there was no rest or peace in them. She nodded to the window and waved her hand. The little boy was frightened and jumped down off the chair, and then he fancied that a big bird flew past the window.

The next day was bright and frosty, and then came the thaw—and after that the spring.”

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A beekeeper’s notes
A beekeeper’s notes for January

Venice, city of water and light

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In the cold month of February comes St Valentine’s Day, the 14th, with skeleton trees in parks and plants shrivelled away by frost. It seems a strange season to celebrate romance, but I saved this pretty picture post for when winter should be stirring with thoughts of spring.

In December I was whisked away for a birthday surprise to Venice. John had planned the trip in secret, revealing our destination last-minute at the airport. I was so excited – Venice, an impossible city floating on the water, just a few hours away by plane.

John is a seasoned traveller, but even he was struck by the uniqueness of Venice. Our boat bus took us past brightly coloured buildings along the canals, water seeping in doors and lapping at shuttered windows. The city, said to be founded with the dedication of the first church at the stroke of noon on 25 March 421, is built on 117 islands linked by bridges across waterways.

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We stayed at Piazzo St Marco, the main public square with gulls flying over the famous Basilica during the day and fairy lights illuminating passage ways at night. Walking in Venice is the best way to get around the little streets and bridges. It is a quieter place in winter with fewer tourists and, of course, no cars. Breakfast views of early morning gondolas to night-time scenes of beautiful moonlit palaces, Venice is a jewel of old world charm, art and architecture, culture and history. Here’s our holiday highlights…

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As travellers we felt welcomed by the local culture and traditional way of life.

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Of course, we had to do the tourist thing.

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How’s this for romance? The house where George Clooney married Amal Alamuddin.

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A short island hop took us from the main city to Murano, a beautiful paradise of rainbows and glass.

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And twilight had so many colours mirrored in the skies and seas.

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Venice by night is magical, like stepping back in time. I felt truly spoiled – thank you John for the most wonderful birthday surprise!

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We needed only a few days to become familiar and fascinated by Venice. Flying away from the city of water and light, John found a video that explained: How does Venice work? Enjoy watching Venice backstage…

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Winter studies: Lessons under the hive

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As February is around the corner, there’s a chance for new beekeepers to visit the apiary ahead of the beginners’ course. This year’s cohort are keener than ever to look inside the hive, but the recent cold snap has meant roofs are just briefly lifted to check the fondant.

Last Saturday I took out the varroa monitoring boards beneath the mesh floors to count the mite drop for the week. Andy Pedley used this as an opportunity to give the beginner beekeepers a lesson in what you can learn under the hive.

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You can tell a lot about the colony in winter by looking at the varroa board, including its size, position, and activity. I held up Pepper’s varroa board (above) as Andy examined the ‘evidence’ like a crime scene investigator. “You’ve probably got around six seams of bees filling the brood box,” he said pointing to six ‘lines’ of debris that had fallen down from the brood frames. There was a pile of wax cappings: “The bees have been eating their honey stores in this spot here…”. We also counted 19 mites had dropped onto the varroa board in a week, which is not too high.

Next we looked at Melissa’s, Chili’s and Chamomile’s varroa boards. What can you tell about life inside these hives from the boards below? I’ve marked up Pepper’s board to make it easier to spot the clues.

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Unfortunately, Melissa’s and Chili’s bees had around 30 mites dropped in a week, which might be more of a concern. There’s not much we can do about that now, but regularly monitoring varroa levels over winter may give us a better idea of what to do in spring.

Chili’s colony looks smallest and least active and Chamomile’s colony showed worrying signs of nosema (see the red ring around a spot of dysentery). Hang tight ladies, not long till spring!

We’ll put a varroa monitoring board under the hives again for one week in February.

The varroa boards are all yellow and it’s much easier to spot a red varroa mite against a yellow background. I don’t know if this is the reason that varroa boards are yellow, although I read a really interesting article on entomologist Simon Leather’s blog: Entomological classics – The Moericke (Yellow) Pan Trap. The post explains why many entomologists use yellow pan traps because the colour yellow “is highly attractive to many flying insects”. Varroa aren’t insects and don’t fly, but I found it interesting that varroa boards and pan traps are both yellow all the same.

Today the crowd disappeared even quicker than last week, Emily and I used the opportunity to clean up our kit boxes.

The apiary’s snowdrops are still peeking shyly from bright green shoots. The cold weather hasn’t quite coaxed them to unfold their pretty flowers. Instead, I’ve drawn what they might look like in a couple of weeks visited by a bee.

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