Surviving winter – and woodpeckers

Beekeeping? Bee keeping? That’s the response I usually get when I tell people about my hobby. Why would I want to do that? Well, I hope over the next few months to explain why sticking your head regularly down a beehive can be such a rewarding pastime. It involves lots of time, effort, frustration and sometimes not a little pain. But most the time it’s worth it, believe me—and it’s not just for the honey!

I’m not going to try to convince you to become a beekeeper. It doesn’t suit everyone by any means. But it is often fascinating and utterly absorbing just to see how the bees organize themselves. And I hope some of that will rub off in this fortnightly blog. Feel free to add your thoughts afterwards.

Sadly we can’t check the bees out just yet. Because it’s been such a long, hard winter, it’s still a bit too cold to get into the hive and have a proper look at what they’ve been up to. Although they’ve been flying on the warmer days, you have to wait for shirtsleeve weather before you can prize the frames apart and check that all is well inside. Otherwise what we call the broodthe eggs and stuffwill get chilled, and that would be the worst possible start for the bees. So that will have to wait for another time.

What we do know already is that most of our hives have survived through to the spring, and that’s very cheering. You’re probably aware that British beekeepers have had a bit of a rough time of this over the past couple of years, and winter losses have been rather high. You can usually reckon to lose up to a quarter of your bees through the colder months due to starvation, or damp or some nefarious disease. So I’m delighted to report that out of a total of nine hives which went into the winter, seven are still alive. The two that didn’t make it were smaller colonies which I should have united last autumn and didn’t, and now Iand theyhave paid the price. There just weren’t enough of them in each hive to keep going.

The woodpecker didn’t help. I’d heard about them attacking hives, but had never seen it. I did last winter though, and what a lesson it was. When it’s really cold the woodpeckers’ hunger can overcome their natural shyness, and they’ll drill right through the side of the hive to plunder whatever they can – honey or bees, they don’t seem to mind. The colony is clustered in a ball inside to keep warm, so it’s pretty defenseless.

And once Woody has got the taste for it, he keeps coming back. We returned from a trip abroad in January to find a three inch hole in the side of one hive at the bottom of the garden, just a few yards from the house. The bees were still alive inside, and I patched up the hole as best I could. A day or two later I wondered which of my neighbors was hammering away so persistently in their garden on a Sunday morning when I looked out to see the blessed bird at it again. The third time it came back I was out, and that was that. Well at least the woodpecker survived the winter, and they’re such beautiful birds I can’t begrudge them too much. I’ve still got seven hives to take care of, and that will be more than enough.

Within the next few days I hope the weather will be warm enough to delve properly inside the hive, and then who knows what delights the bees will have in store. I’ll bet they’re hatching some nefarious plot right now…

As first seen on the Saga Magazine website: