First inspection of the year

One of the unexpected consequences of taking up beekeeping – and only being able to visit the bees on a weekend – has been developing an obsession with the weather. During the summer months I jump on the BBC website as soon as Tuesday comes, to inspect the five day forecast. Sometimes on Tuesday sunshine will be predicted for Saturday, but that sunshine turns into clouds or rain as the week progresses. Other times rain will be expected, but as Saturday comes closer a sun will miraculously appear. It keeps me on tenterhooks I can tell you.

This is this week’s forecast: summer is here at last!

Screen Shot 2013-05-04 at 22.12.48

Yesterday was certainly full of surprises. I left the house to go and visit the local farmers market at about 12pm, only to find the kind of rain coming down that clears the streets, because people are afraid to leave their homes. I pushed my hair back under my waterproof and listened to the drops pounding down on my hood. By the time I reached the market the rain cleared, but all the plants and vegetables were dripping. I was convinced the day was a write off for beekeeping. Yet later on, by 2pm, the rain had cleared, sun came out and the day turned all lovely.

When I arrived at the apiary, everyone was standing watching a gentleman on a ladder constructing a bigger roof for us to meet under, as more people are visiting each week than ever. How many beekeepers does it take to put up a roof? One to do all the work, plus twenty to drink tea and watch.

Roof construction

After a cup of tea and a chocolate brownie, I watched David Pugh, an experienced Welsh beekeeper, go through his colony. As usual his dark, moody bees were doing well – I’ve never known those little buggers not get through a winter.  “Why is there still fondant on the hive?” someone asked. “Because I haven’t taken it off yet” David replied.

David Pugh inspecting

David Pugh inspecting

Things were not so positive in the hive next door inhabited by yellow Italians (imported from New Zealand), which appeared to have a spider problem. Lots of bees had died tangled up in cobwebs, and there was very little brood. Last week we’d seen wasps going in – weak colonies struggle to keep pests out. “Focus on building them up for the winter” David recommended. “You’ll never get any honey out of them this year – unless you’re exceptionally lucky.”

After that, I watched Thomas inspecting Ken’s hive. Ken had already tried earlier that morning, but without gloves on. The bees (headed by a queen raised from eggs from David’s fiesty bees) had beaten him back by stinging his hands repeatedly. So Tom was wise to have thick gloves on for the second attempt! Here you can see him showing the others the queen.

Thomas inspecting

Thomas inspecting

The bees were doing great. “Two for black bees, nil for New Zealanders”, Thomas observed.

An audience

Below is Albert inspecting. These bees came from a captured swarm last year. They seem to be doing okay and the queen was spotted, a large beauty.

Albert inspecting

Albert inspecting

After watching everyone else go through their hives, I was excited to be able to delve inside our two colonies for the first time this year. A small audience was there to watch and help, including a cartoonist from Private Eye, looking for inspiration for his regular comic in there. Our newest hive, which we bought recently from another Ealing beekeeper, was absolutely bursting. The bees had not gone up to start drawing out foundation in their second brood box for the Bailey comb exchange yet, but they had packed every spare centimetre of their hive with comb.

As I eased the sticky frames out, layers of drone comb were falling off the bottom. At one point I had to reach my hand into the bottom of the hive to fish out a particularly large dislodged piece, which would have been hard for the bees to remove on their own. Luckily I got no stings, despite wearing thin surgical gloves which had split at the wrists. Upon inspecting the purple eyed drones, no mites were spotted.

Our other, older hive with our lovely ultra gentle ladies was not so full of bees, but still had enough brood, pollen and honey stores. Our quite orange queen was spotted – she’s on the small side, but seems to be laying fine. I was a bit worried to see some smaller than usual workers – with developed wings but tiny abdomens – could this be due to the workers being weakened by varroa whilst developing?

The Private Eye cartoonist was interested in hearing our views on the two-year EU neonicotinoids ban. He had not heard of varroa mites and was surprised that they are such a problem for beekeepers here. There has been a lot of publicity about bees recently – they even featured in both Have I Got News For You and QI this week – but there are so many issues involved in bee health that I think it’s hard for the general public (or indeed beekeepers) to have a clear idea of all the factors involved.

Drew cycled to the apiary to meet me and we walked part of the way home together. We stopped to watch a game of bowls – another very weather dependent sport. The bowlers were all dressed very smartly in white with cream jumpers, like cricketers. It’s a game of skill rather than physical exertion. The sky above is pretty and the bowlers must have been pleased to have a sunny day to play on.

Bowls

Bowls

About Emily Scott

I am a UK beekeeper living in Ealing, west London. I have been keeping bees in the Ealing Beekeepers Association’s local apiary since 2008 and created this blog as a record for myself of my various beekeeping related disasters and - hopefully - future successes. Busy taking the British Beekeeping Association module exams too!
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29 Responses to First inspection of the year

  1. I’m glad so many of the bees in Ealing survived this lousy winter after your lousy spring. Was it really only 17 when you opened the hives? It’s topping 20 here now and seems pretty cold to us but, as this is the average high for May, we’re going to have to be bold and open our hives anyway. It’s getting time to start thinking about readying them for winter.

    I know what you mean about becoming weather obsessed. Not just the temp, but I also am always wanting rain so things bloom but then sunshine so the bees can go out and forage. Basically I want overnight rain and daily sun – is that too much to ask?

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    • Emily Heath says:

      Don’t laugh, but 17°C is really warm here, so yes it was 17°C or probably a bit under when we inspected. 19°C is predicted tomorrow and I’m very excited about that. Anything above 20°C is a proper heatwave in a British summer. Do you really feel cold in those temperatures? When I went to Albania last May I was amazed to see joggers in jumpers whilst we were sweating in t-shirts. It’s what you’re used to I guess!

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      • Well, 20 isn’t “cold” but I wouldn’t go out without a jumper at that temp. At 17 I’m wearing gloves. I know you Brits talk about not opening the hive unless you can go out in shirtsleeves but I think that would mean my poor bees would only get checked twice a year if I lived in the UK 🙂 I obviously need to toughen up!

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  2. Glad you got to your bees Emily! I always fret until I see how they did over the winter, and I like to see the queen for myself. Since taking up beekeeping, I too am weather obsessed. Till now I had never bothered with the hourly weather report…now I pull it up on the iPad while I have my first morning cup of coffee in bed! I can get a 10 day weather forecast, in hourly format. Fab!

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  3. Glad your bees are doing well. We still have not inspected ours. In spite of our hives being in our own backyard free time and suitable weather seem to rarely coincide.

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  4. I was very excited to see your progress. I am contemplating a hive for my garden in the future so I your experiences are very helpful. Thank you so much for sharing.

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  5. cecilia says:

    excellent to see shots of the comb too, i always worry when I get that dark comb but it seems i should not, so much to learn! I had to go in a release my new queen yesterday, if she does not thrive then i am going to take some brood from next door the way you recommended, this hive is taking some time kicking off, i am so glad yours look good, and I do hope my poor NZers get stronger and happier, a weak hive i such a worry, my dad had italians in NZ years ago… have a lovely week and i am hoping for more sun for you next weekend!! c

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    • Emily Heath says:

      Well, some of those combs could probably do with being changed. We’ve just started the Bailey comb exchange process to get the bees to draw out a new set of frames from foundation. Once they’ve made a start on that we’ll move the queen up into the new combs and put a queen excluder beneath so she can’t get down again…. then dispose of the old brood frames once the brood has all hatched out.

      Good luck with your bees, hope all goes well – a lovely week to you and the farmie too!

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  6. What a beautiful photographer of the bowlers! The composition and colours are great, it looks so very British. I bet the bowling club would love it.

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    • Bowling is very British, but the Aussies have taken to it in droves. My hubby included. Here we can play outside all year long. I wonder why it ever took off in the UK where the weather is hardly encouraging in outdoor activities – bowling and beekeeping alike!

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    • Emily Heath says:

      Thanks Cecilia – was surprised at how well it turned out, was only using my little iphone camera. Didn’t want to get too close and intrude upon the bowlers either. I think the gorgeous cloud patterns in the sky is what really makes the photo.

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  7. Wendy says:

    Great photos and fascinating to read about how the bees are here. I don’t think I became really weather-obsessed until last summer when it rained so much and I often couldn’t get to my bees when I wanted to. Since then, I’ve got into the habit of studying the forecast, too! Glad your two colonies are doing well. My first inspections were late this year, and, after the long winter, the colonies seem to be building up fast now.

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  8. Strathcona Beekeepers says:

    Good to hear summer has arrived. I too am weather obsessed being a Canadian beekeeper. Last year was terrible with temperatures 4 degrees below normal on average from January to July and excessive rain and wind (not great flying weather). This year has been great with normal temperatures and lots of sun. The small abdomen could be symptoms of mites, nosema (poop on the outside of the hive?) or poor nutrition. Good luck and good weather.

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    • Emily Heath says:

      Urgh, rain and wind sounds like the weather we had too. So many queens couldn’t mate as a result. Glad things have been better for you so far this year.

      The mite drop from the hive has been virtually nil since we treated with oxalic acid in the winter. There’s no poop on the hive, but then nosema ceranae isn’t associated with dysentery. Nosema has been found in other hives in the apiary so it wouldn’t surprise me if our bees had it. Perhaps that coupled with lack of opportunities to collect fresh pollen in the cold weather has caused the poor nutrition. Thanks for the advice.

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  9. Wonderful to hear about your first hive inspection! We’re anxiously watching our weather as well, hoping to do our first one next week! Where are the dark bees from?

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  10. Tabitha says:

    I am fascinated by weather. It is so interesting to see the differences around the world and how they affect bees and beekeepers. I could not imagine the first inspection of the year being in May! Glad you are having some nice weather.

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  11. Pingback: A new beginning | Miss Apis Mellifera

  12. cindy knoke says:

    Fabulous photos and post! Thank you Emily…….

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  13. beatingthebounds says:

    Bee-keeping, bowls, tea, cake, fretting over the weather forecast, it all seems quintessentially English (although, it doesn’t take much thought to realise that it isn’t exclusively so).
    I don’t think you’re alone in watching the weekend forecast obsessively through the week – I know that I do it too, and I suspect that a lot of weekend walkers, climbers, yachtsmen, gardeners, cricketers, bird-watchers etc do the same.
    Here’s hoping for some decent weather this Bank Holiday weekend. The BBC give two sunny days here, but highs of 13 degrees. Brrrrr….
    Will February ever end?

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    • Emily Heath says:

      Enjoy your highs of 13 degrees! In London we’re predicted slightly higher – 16. For this year, that seems like a heatwave. Yesterday we had hail coming down. Perhaps the White Witch has escaped from Narnia.

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