13 April 2014

When Ribes comes into flower.

Ribes sanguineum 'King Edward VII'

One of the things I was told as a beginner beekeeper was that Spring colony inspections shouldn't commence until the Flowering Currant was in bloom - that's Ribes sanguineum for those who prefer the Latin names.  

(Image from BBC Plant Finder)

Rules of Thumb
We have one of these shrubs in our garden and it's only just in flower, which would suggest it's time to open the hives for the first inspection of the season - but this particular plant is growing in a cold pocket, so always flowers later than any other in the area. This means that the 'rule' doesn't work too well for me and my bees.

There's another of these 'rules of thumb' for Spring which says that once a beekeeper needs only to wear a t-shirt, instead of being wrapped up in coats and jumpers, then it's okay to inspect. Trouble is that there are hardy souls who wear shorts and t-shirt outdoors on the coldest of days, and also those who prefer to wear warm jumpers and fleeces right though to June.

So, you see, these 'Rules of Thumb' are, at best, only a guide. What I do is look at the bees - if the colony has a lot of bees flying then I know they're happy to be out of the hive and are more likely to tolerate an inspection.

Do I need to inspect?
Each beekeeper has to find a system of checking a colony's condition that works best for them, and also for their bees. I think it should be somewhere between the extremes of a) those whose boxes of bees are left to get on with it without ever being interrupted by pesky humans, and b) those open their hives on the first sunny day of the year, whatever the temperature, and continue to inspect at weekly intervals until autumn.

I try not to lose swarms, and also try to make sure my bees are healthy - it's hard to do either without taking a look inside the hive but there are clues from just watching carefully.

What can I learn without taking off the roof?
"At the Hive Entrance" by H. Storch* shows that it's possible to get an idea of what's happening in a hive by looking activity around and near the entrance.

A few weeks ago I could tell, by standing and looking, that all my colonies were alive. Each hive had large numbers of bees coming and going, flying quickly and purposefully about their business.

I could also see :-
  • no obvious sign that any colony was being robbed by bees from another;
  • no sign of deformed wing virus on dead bees near the entrances;
  • no signs of Nosema apis - the outer surface of each hive was clean;
  • no drones - so maybe no swarm within the next 30 days or so, and maybe no laying workers or drone laying queens;
  • none of the colonies was aggressive, another clue that each had a laying queen;
  • orientation flights - new bees were taking their first flights, making me more confident that there were laying queens in each box;
  • bees with full pollen baskets - so they were collecting protein, which could mean there was brood to feed;
  • some bees retuning without pollen - which could indicate they were collecting either nectar or water. Water is used to dilute stores;
  • no signs of chalkbrood mummies beneath any of the hives.
I couldn't tell, without looking inside, if any colony had built emergency or supersedure queen cells, if there were drones ready to emerge nor if the colony was in desperate need of more space. Each of these things would have an impact on management - doing what I thought best to keep each colony healthy and to prevent it swarming and annoying (or frightening) neighbours.

*"At the Hive Entrance" can be read online here.


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