Normally we'd have completed the years first full inspections weeks before now. Although, as usual, opening a hive is weather dependant and the weather doesn’t always want to play fair.
Once I’ve spotted flowering currants out in bloom I take that as a signal to check on the bees. The temperature should be around 15 degrees centigrade and there should be noticeable activity around the entrance. In April the days are getting longer and the temperature is gradually rising. This seasonal shift triggers the colony into a burst of development with the queen increasing her egg laying and the workers out searching for food in earnest. Developing larvae need a good supply of pollen so standing at the hive entrance and seeing workers arriving laden with their yellow trousers is a good indicator that things are going according to plan.
Sadly though, the first inspections aren’t always happy ones. It’s not unusual for a colony to dwindle and die over winter with the average beekeeper losing around 10-20% of their hives. There are many factors that can contribute to the death of a colony, which we’ll save for another time, but it’s in the beekeepers’ interests to determine the cause of these losses so they can try to prevent it from happening the following year.
As well as gathering early pollen like Pussy Willow, worker bees will be looking for sources of water and early nectar to facilitate the colony expansion. We generally leave a super (honey box) underneath the main brood box over winter to ensure the colony has enough food to make it through to the spring. Normally this will have been cleaned out by the bees and can now be removed or put on top of the main box separated by a queen excluder.
If it hasn’t already been done, then this is also a good time to mark the queen. The colony will still be comparatively small compared with its summer peak of 50,000 bees, so finding her now will be a much easier task. Once located, she’s marked with a coloured dot on her thorax - the colour used being particular to the current year. Marking the queen like this makes it much easier to find her amongst thousands of bees which is often a necessity particularly in the upcoming swarm season. We’ll also be checking for the other four elements of any routine inspection: making sure there are ample stores, ensuring there is enough space to expand and store nectar, spotting (and potentially removing) any queen cells and checking on the health of the colony.
As usual, there’s a lot going on in the hives right now and things will change as the season progresses. Here’s hoping spring makes a full appearance very soon and the bees can start producing this years batch of honey.