For beginners: March


If you acquired your bees as a nucleus last year, as most beginners do, this will be your first full season and you have exciting and challenging times ahead. I compare this time of the year to a sprinter in the blocks before the start of a race; they have done all the training and are finally ready for the starting gun to sound.

You may not have done all the training, but you should now have everything ready for the beekeeping year ahead. Have you made enough frames and fitted them with foundation, and do you have ample supers in readiness? Is your equipment clean? Do you have a spare hive or nucleus box for the inevitable swarm or for your chosen swarm control procedure once you find unsealed queen cells?

 There is so much to take in as a beginner, but don’t panic! The main thing is to enjoy your beekeeping journey and remember that we all learn from making mistakes.

Wonderful wildlife

On warmer days in March, your bees will be foraging on early spring flowers and the golden catkins of goat willow will be shimmering in the spring sunshine, adding to the kaleidoscope of colour we see as the season progresses. Queen bumblebees will be emerging from their subterranean hibernation tunnels and you will notice them feeding on willow and heathers. Flying close to the ground and investigating any dark shadowy patches, they will be searching for a suitable hole to begin their embryo nest. My love for honey bees has given me a fresh appreciation of the natural world around me and I really enjoy the local flora and fauna. I am particularly pleased to see some of the other species of bees we have in the UK.

No hurry

Don’t be in a rush to carry out a full inspection of the brood nest in March as the disturbance can do more harm than good. It is still a critical time for your bees, so continue to check stores and replace fondant where necessary. When the bees are flying and bringing in pollen, I will scrape solid floors clean and blow-torch them, or replace with new, clean ones. Leaving the crownboard in position, simply lift the brood box and place it diagonally onto an upturned roof. This won’t unduly disturb the bees and, once the floor is cleaned or replaced, return the brood box to its former position. Open-mesh floors should be checked, and any debris scraped off.

Remove mouseguards in March and replace them with a reduced entrance block to help prevent drafts. The insert beneath the open-mesh floor will still be in place from last month and this is a good time to check it for varroa. Like the bees, mites will be dying daily and they will drop through the mesh onto the floor insert. You can count the varroa and, by doing some maths, you will get a natural mite mortality drop figure, helping to indicate whether any treatment is required. (Visit BeeBase for the varroa calculator:

Stimulative feeding

It isn’t normal practice, nor recommended by me, to start feeding your bees syrup in spring just for the sake of it. This should only be done if you want to stimulate colonies to take advantage of an early spring crop such as oilseed rape. If you do feed syrup without a spring crop being present, your bees will forage more even in poor weather, resulting in a loss of flying bees at a crucial time. Some of those colonies may build up more quickly and will likely start swarm preparations earlier than usual.

Unless you are experienced, you can also cause problems by causing the bees to store the syrup in brood cells, thereby reducing the space for the queen to lay. This can prevent the colony from expanding to its peak population in time for the summer nectar flow).

Queen problems

If you get a still, warm day of above 14°C, when the bees are flying, you will be able to have a quick peak in the brood nest to check that all is well with the queen. Be as quick as you can and look for brood in all stages: eggs, larvae and sealed worker brood. If you see these, you can relax. But if the sealed cells are raised or domed, you may have a drone-laying queen and, unless you have access to a mated queen or can unite this colony to another queenright one, the bees are doomed.

Drone-laying queens

A queen can become a drone layer (meaning she lays only unfertilised eggs) because of a shortage of sperm due to old age, inadequate mating, a physical inability to fertilise the eggs correctly or a genetic fault.

If your queen has died during the winter, you may find your colony has laying workers. If a queen is absent for about four weeks or more, the ovaries of worker bees can develop, and they will start to lay eggs. Because the eggs are unfertilised (the workers never having been mated), the result will be mini-drones emerging from worker cells and the colony will almost certainly die out.

If you spot the queen in your colony, you will know that the problem is a drone-laying queen – and there are other signs of drone-layers. Drone-laying queens will keep a tidy brood area, the laying pattern will be orderly, with compact patches of brood and very few empty cells. In contrast, the brood pattern of laying workers will be scattered and haphazard. Additionally, a drone-laying queen will usually lay one egg in the base of the cell while laying workers usually lay multiple eggs in the same cell.

Eggs from laying workers are often on the sides of the cell wall rather than on the base of the cell because a worker’s abdomen is much shorter than that of a queen and cannot reach all the way to the bottom. A drone-laying queen will often lay areas of drone brood in the middle of larger patches of worker brood as she runs out of sperm. And, finally, if the colony is trying to build charged queen cells, it is more likely that laying workers are present in your hive.

Multiple queens

You may also find that the queen you put to bed last autumn is not the queen you find in spring – or there may even be two queens present in the same hive. I have found this on several occasions – by chance, because when one queen is spotted it is not usual to search for another. This situation, known as perfect supersedure, occurs when the bees raise a new queen without killing the mother queen beforehand. Sometimes the old queen is killed as soon as the new queen begins laying, but at other times the two queens are allowed to co-exist for some time.

I once had a colony with two queens present in spring, and mother and daughter would quite happily lay eggs side by side with no aggression at all. This went on for several months but, by the end of summer, only the daughter was to be found.

Oilseed rape

Many beekeepers steer clear of oilseed rape because of the problems it can cause if hives are left unmanaged. But autumn-sown oilseed rape, which flowers in late April/early May, can provide an abundance of spring honey and this might be the only honey you get if the summer is a washout! As a commercial beekeeper – or bee farmer as we are now known – I need a good honey crop to pay the mortgage, so I choose and select my bees to suit my location and requirements. For me, the best bees to get a good honey crop from the rape are Buckfast-type bees. These overwinter well, build-up quickly in spring so that I have a strong foraging force for the rape, and fly at relatively low temperatures. They are very calm on the comb, which helps with the speed of hive inspections, and as a bonus are not prone to swarming. Like many bee farmers, I bring fresh Buckfast stock into my operation every now and again but also breed from what I consider to be my best queens, selecting for calmness and productivity. I use these queens to make up nucs later in the season and would describe them as a mixture of Buckfast, Carnolian and local mongrels.

You must choose whatever type of bees you want for your locality and for your own circumstances – you will learn this with experience. For example, if you keep bees on the west coast of Scotland where no rape is grown, or up a mountain where spring is later than on the coast, you may want bees that don’t build up too quickly early on. Native bees, Apis mellifera mellifera, would be ideal for that situation. So, as you go through your first full beekeeping season, keep an eye on the size of the colony and, if the bees are bursting out of the box, you may want to consider adding a second brood chamber. You should provide a box – or boxes – big enough for your queen. Don’t restrict her laying – that will lead to early swarming.

Early lessons

I learned early on in my beekeeping career that bees can build up very rapidly on rape and need stringent management if you don’t want to lose a swarm or two. I ended my very first year with nine hives of bees and, after feeding them and treating them for varroa, I was pleased that they all made it through to the spring. The farmer next door proceeded to sow 50 acres of oilseed rape and, with the sun glaring down for most of February and March, the bees were very busy working the early flowering rape. I removed a couple of supers of honey on 17 April and was thinking to myself how easy this beekeeping lark was! The local association meeting was held at my apiary a couple of days later and the smugness was wiped off my face when the queen couldn’t be found in hive one. However, sealed queen cells were found in abundance and it transpired that the queen had scarpered with an early swarm.  A similar scenario was found in all my other hives! The following few weeks were pandemonium as I tried to keep on top of swarming with very little knowledge, and I failed miserably. I did, however, get a good crop of honey and I learnt much – especially what not to do.

So, I now move about 100 hives to the oilseed rape every year, normally about the middle of April when it is due to flower. In a good year I will get a couple of tonnes of honey.

Written by Tony Harris. This article appears in the March 2019 edition of Bee Craft Magazine.

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