A visit to the bees in April

It was the first sunny day in ages – or the first day not filled by wind and rain in ages – and I was out in the garden sweeping up vast pink piles of camellia blossom when my phone rang. It was my father-in-law, Tom, and he informed me that the bees were very busy, busier than he remembered them being last year.

I suspected that the bees were probably just happy to get some sun at last, but thought it best to check they weren’t about to swarm into someone’s chimney, so I headed over.

When we moved to Cornwall Tom and Carol took in our cat Bob. A bit of a change for him from our old London flat. He was eager to head out in the sunshine too.

Having had a nice cup of tea with Carol and Bob first, I crouched down by Kensa’s entrance and took a look. Kensa (pronounced Ken-za) is a Cornish word for ‘first’. I named the queen heading up this hive Kensa as her colony was my first in Cornwall, rather conveniently swarming on a low tree in Tom and Carol’s garden. Her bees were bringing back fat yellow and orange pollen baskets.

I opened up the hive and found the bees were not particularly pleased to be interrupted. They had taken advantage of the break in inspecting during winter to stick everything together with propolis. I like to see plenty of propolis as it’s hygienic and helps keeps drafts out of the hive, but it makes for slow inspecting. Kensa’s bees used to be very gentle but not so this week! They had developed a disconcerting technique of rushing at my fingers as I picked up each frame. While trying to prise the frames apart with my hive tool, they grumpily gathered around the tool, making the job harder. I didn’t actually get stung through my thin latex gloves, but I wouldn’t have liked to inspect them barehanded as I did with some of my old London colonies.

I found eggs, larvae, no queen cells, a few adult drones and a small amount of drone brood.  The brood box is packed full of brood and honey and they are making good progress in drawing out the super frames I added this month. Now that the weather has changed again I think they will keep me on my toes. My prediction is they try to swarm in 2-3 weeks time, but it could be earlier!

Below is a photo of my other hive, Nessa. I bought this colony from a local beekeeper last year (Nessa means ‘second’ in Cornish) and they’re a similar dark colour to Kensa. Within some bee colonies you see a wide variation in colour between the workers, depending on their fathers, but in these colonies all the workers are dark. My friend Thomas asked if they are Cornish dark bees – I don’t know but hope they might have the black honey bee genes!

Nessa seemed a little bit weaker than Kensa. Bizarrely I found some water had accumulated inside the hive. Though the hives were tightly strapped together, some of the horizontal rain we’ve been having must have found a way to get in. I was glad to be able to get rid of it for the bees.

Inside the colony was at a similar stage to Kensa’s bees. They had gathered even more propolis in big wads around the frame lugs. I concentrated hard on moving slowly and gently, aware that the colony’s buzzing was at an irritated pitch. There is a big difference between the hum of a happy colony and the buzzing of angry bees. I had to use smoke to get them to stay calm, something I rarely did with my London colonies. It was on the second-to-last frame when one of the worker’s patience broke and I received a sharp hot jab in the thumb. I hastily smoked my hands to mask the sting pheromone and set about putting the hive together again.

Back in my garden again, I observed what I think is a female hairy-footed flower bee

going back and forth between our mini apple trees. A very welcome little visitor. They like primroses too and we have plenty of those in our garden.

About Emily Scott

I am a UK beekeeper who has recently moved from London to windswept, wet Cornwall. I first started keeping bees in the Ealing Beekeepers Association’s local apiary in 2008, when I created this blog as a record for myself of my various beekeeping related disasters and - hopefully! - future successes.
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13 Responses to A visit to the bees in April

  1. sharonbeek says:

    Lovely blog. I think you’re right – drones and drone brood, suspect play cells soon. Good opportunity to split. Exciting. Look forward to next installment. 👍🏻

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  2. Walrus says:

    Lovely time of the year isn’t it? How quickly we move from hoping they survive Winter to thinking about swarming. My bees are ahead of where they usually are at this time but it all seems under control so far…famous last words. I don’t like those type of bees that jump at your hand when you inspect – I think it is a genetic thing.

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  3. disperser says:

    . . . smoke them if you have them . . . no, wait; that means something else.

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    • Emily Scott says:

      Hmm, perhaps I shouldn’t ask!

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    • disperser says:

      Just trying to make a double meaning joke . . . I was trying to tie the message “you have bees, smoke them before handling them” with the term originating with US military in WW II.

      It was used to indicate soldiers could relax and take a break (smoke a cigarette). The “if you have them” came from the fact cigarettes (like everything else) were rationed.

      Today it has a secondary meaning (also not well known) that you might as well smoke if you’re in a dire situation since you won’t live long anyway. There are a few other usages but I was only referencing the original.

      . . . of course, it’s not funny if I have to explain it.

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  4. They look lovely black bees. You can tell by measuring the wing venation ratios how close they might be to black bees, they look very black. We have two “black” colonies but the other three are very mixed. Amelia

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  5. Interesting the contrast. Possibly the environment? Also, are bees in apiaries, especially shared ones, more accustomed to human visitation, handling? Even just the commotion of humans about, the smell of smoke etc. Every time I hear or read ‘Nessa’, I always think of Gavin and Stacey…

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