Although the bees have been flying now for quite some weeks, the weather has not really been warm enough to open the hives until now. Opening the hives when it is cold is not just bad for the bees, the beekeeper is quite likely to meet with some angry ladies. This week, though, was warm enough to make our first inspection of the two colonies that went through the winter. We already knew that both had survived, as we observed quite a number of bees flying during the good weather, but we had no idea what condition the colonies might be in or if the queen had survived and was laying. At this time of year, when they are only just starting to raise new brood, they are typically very weak and low on stores.
On inspecting the colony we are first looking to check the level of stores to make sure they do not need any further supplementary feeding. It is quite easy for a colony to starve at this time of year. Then we are looking for the queen or a good pattern of eggs that suggests she has survived and is laying well. One would hope to see brood at various stages, some sealed, but also some uncapped, which needs to be inspected for any signs of disease; the larvae should be pearly white.
First, we opened up the long deep hive. By the end of last season, the bees had all but filled the frames with honey – over 100lbs. The Italian bees are known for using rather a large amount of stores through the winter, but this was double what was needed. We could have extracted some from the end frames that had not been used for brood, but decided to leave it to give them a good start to this year. This winter has been particularly mild and we found rather more than half of the stores intact. In fact, many frames had fresh honey. One could observe a clear band of fresh sealed honey on the part consumed frames. The amount of stores remaining was not so surprising, given the weather conditions, but the addition of quite a large quantity of new honey was somewhat unexpected. Even more astounding, though, was the size of the colony – if we had opened the hive at the end of the summer, with the colony at its peak, we would not expect it to look any better. The colony was huge, and nothing like it should be in the spring. We went through every frame and, along with a huge amount of stores, we observed a large amount of pollen – much more than we have ever seen before – and a large area of brood. We found plenty of eggs as well as spotting the queen – not an easy task when she is unmarked and the colony is so large. The brood pattern was a little disorganised, where the stores had been consumed in a haphazard sort of way, but I imagine this will sort itself out over the coming weeks. Everything was, though, in perfect condition. We added a super and will probably add another in the next week or two. Given the state of the hive I imagine they will be working on that already.
We expected less from the second colony. This was started a little late in the last season. They worked very hard to build up through the autumn, where our mild conditions and sheltered site allowed them more time than would normally be available. Nonetheless, we did not expect to find a large colony, and were somewhat concerned that there might be very little stores. We had fed them a little fondant over the winter, but they were certainly in no hurry to consume it. The reason was quite clear when we opened the hive and found a considerable amount of stores remaining, and much new honey being added. This is not normally a time for much honey production, but perhaps the mild weather has brought things into flower rather earlier than normal. In any event, they are finding copious amounts of pollen and nectar. Despite its late start in the previous season, the colony was, much like the long deep hive, already up to full strength. There was a large and healthy looking area of brood and a great deal of bright yellow-orange pollen. We found plenty of eggs and spotted the queen without any trouble; unlike the queen in the long deep hive, this one is marked so much easier to find. We allow the bees two brood boxes on this hive, and both were packed with bees and all but a couple of frames were packed with honey, brood, and pollen. As with the long deep hive, we added a super straight away and will add another soon.
I have, lately, become somewhat accustomed to delivering bad news where the bees are concerned, with colony losses and poorly performing queens. This year has started in a much more positive way. Indeed, I have not seen anything like these two colonies, nor has Dad, who has been keeping bees for many years. So long as nothing untoward happens, we should see a huge harvest from these two colonies, and especially the long deep hive.
Dad brought with him a small colony from home, which we moved into a new hive. This third colony is very small, but we found a healthy looking queen, so perhaps it may succeed to build up. It will not produce any surplus this year, but hopefully will build up to a good size before winter arrives.