Feeding honey bees in late spring, and the position of the hive

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Posted by Andy Sivell | Posted in Bee feeders, Bee feeding, Beekeeping advice, Beekeeping courses for beginners | Posted on 13-04-2011

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At our second, second-year beekeepers class in March our instructors, Jane and Richard, had confidently predicted that our various colonies would soon kick-start into life. Nearby fields of oil seed rape would burst forth, their balletic ripples sounding a dinner bell for honey bees far and wide. Well, within a three mile radius anyway. Start preparing now, we were instructed. Make sure brood chambers have their full complement of frames to avoid the colony swarming. Have supers made up and ready in preparation for the first ‘flow’.

It sounded alarming, and not a little distasteful. Nevertheless, it had what I presumed was the desired effect. I stopped twiddling my thumbs and logged into Thorne’s online shop to order frames, foundation and (in a moment of reckless abandon) a tin of ‘bee-friendly beehive paint’. In no time at all, (well, plenty of time actually – nineteen days to deliver – nineteen days) I’d readied myself for the upcoming nectar-fest.

Except that to date there has been no ‘fest’. No great hum of activity, just a few bees casually flying in and out when the sun is at its highest. By the end of week two I could contain myself no longer and chose a warm day to lift off the roof and check on progress.

Honey bee frame showing depleted stores

The 'bonus' frame of stores I found and moved in February

To my relief they were still alive, and appeared to be so in reasonable numbers. But they were far from bursting at the seams. I pulled out a couple of frames and, probably for the first time since taking up beekeeping nine months ago, instinctively identified what the problem was: they were hungry. Nearly all the frames with stores had been licked clean. The ‘bonus’ frame I’d found mid-February had been uncapped and was left with crystallised leftovers. To my relief I saw larvae, but not much.

Thankfully, the arrival of Thorne’s supplies coincided with a spell of warm weather. I topped up the brood chamber (even though it didn’t really need it), replaced a frame with foundation that had gone mouldy, and added a rapid feeder in an empty super. The bees pounced on it within hours, but a week later had still taken barely a third. Perhaps it’s true that honey bees sometimes need a quick feed to kick-start them. After all, I like to go to work on a good breakfast. Then again, maybe there was more to it.

mouldy capped pollen and nectar

Mouldy capped pollen and nectar

Two days later I passed a local apiary and couldn’t help but notice that its hives were buzzing, literally. Clouds of bees hung round each entrance while, like the famous scene from Metropolis, a steady stream of bees zoomed in an out on invisible highways. Then Michelle from up the road told me that she’d only just managed to get a super on her colony in time. They’d already filled every frame of the brood chamber. Strange. And then Mark, who lives barely a few hundred yards from Michelle, asked me whether my colony was really active yet, because his bees were just casually flying in and out when the sun was up.

Interestingly, Michelle’s and the Metropolis’ hives have at least one side fully exposed to the sun. Both Mark’s colony and my own are flanked by trees or hedges. Our bees, it seems, wait for the sun to hit the hive before bothering to get up for work. Maybe they have more in common with my kids than I thought.

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