Cold comfort for bees

This weather is beginning to worry me. It’s chucking it down at the moment, and the forecast for the next few days is equally grim. I don’t mind for myself; it’s the bees I’m bothered about. This is a sensitive time for them as they’re just emerging from the winter cold. The queen is laying new brood, and there’s not a lot of food about.

Some beekeepers have been finding that colonies which have held on from last autumn are now in trouble because their queen has died, the old bees which have held on through the winter have also given up the ghost, and there is no new generation to bring through. Result? One highly endangered colony.

During the brief warm spell I did manage to get over to the farm and have a quick look inside the hives. It still wasn’t warm enough to give them a full inspection, but I could see that they have all still got their queens and are in good shape, if a little grumpy. This is unusual, as normally at this time of year they are too busy getting established to be bothered with the intruding beekeeper. But on this occasion they were quick to fly off the frames and buzz irritatedly around my veil, as if to say “Who do you think you are coming in here, and why don’t you just leave us alone?”

I had noticed that the hives were a little light when I opened them up, a sure sign that there’s not much honey on board, which would explain the ill temper. And amazingly, I had brought a gallon of sugar syrup and some pollen feed along for just such an eventuality. It’s an intriguing sign that in my tenth season as a beekeeper, I might just be becoming vaguely proficient. The bees, duly fed, can now sit inside their hives and wait for the rotten cold weather to pass. I’ve done all I can for them for now. We just have to wait for the sun to shine, and flowers to blossom, and the little ones to come out in their own good time.

So those are the bees we want to get out and about. And then we have the bees we just want out. Last summer a swarm took up residence in the roof of my local church. As the only known beekeeper in the congregation, it fell to me to keep an eye on them, which I duly did. And then forgot about. They were right up at the top, above the altar, out of reach and (so I thought) out of harm’s way. Then, during the really cold spell, the bees thought it might be fun to fly around not outside, but inside the church. Well it was warm, and light, so they were only doing what comes naturally. Things came to a head – quite literally – when one of them became entangled in the altar boy’s hair, and I was asked to Do Something About It.

The problem is – what? The visitors are nestled right under the roof at the east end of the building, inaccessible from inside without the use of scaffolding, and unreachable from outside without hiring a cherry picker. Even then I can’t get them out as their entrance is just a crack at the top of the eastern wall. And as a new rector has just taken up residence, it would not do for his first services to be disturbed by an unholy buzzing from above. I’m afraid drastic measures will be called for unless we are struck by inspiration – divine or otherwise. Any ideas?

P.S. In answer to your question, Caroline – the bees which die over the winter usually do so through starvation or disease, or damp, but not the cold. Whatever the temperature outside, they maintain their warmth in a cluster at a steady 38 C – so long as they have food.

This blog post was first seen March 31, 2010 on the Saga Magazine website.