I realise I’ve come a long way when I think back to how I used to worry and fret about how the bees were doing in the depths of winter. When there’s no movement around the hive at all because the temperature, even in the middle of a sunny day, is too low for them to even think about stirring, it is hard to be confident that they are alright. The temptation used to be to knock the hive wall to hear that reassuring bzzz but I don’t like to disturb them now. I even bought a cheap stethoscope!
Nowadays I am more reassured by the fact that they went into the winter with all their own stores of honey and that they were strong when I last saw them actively flying. If a colony wasn’t strong then I would be concerned they may not make it through the winter but I still don’t interfere, just watch and try to learn. It helps enormously having 1. more than one colony and 2. a few years’ experience. When you have a single colony, if it doesn’t survive it is devastating and you have to start all over again. With several colonies you know that the strong ones will survive and, for whatever reason, the weaker may die out. As long as the reason isn’t something that was within my control, for example inadequate housing or having taken too much honey from them (which wouldn’t happen as I take little if any), I allow nature to take its course. I hope that in this way I am facilitating the natural breeding of a stronger bee.
The experience helps because I am more confident in knowing whether colonies are strong in autumn and because I have seen swarms inhabit my empty hives. The fear that a particular colony won’t make it is therefore lessened and I am starting to trust that the bees can manage very well on their own.
Now I can concentrate on providing better homes for them. I can see they enjoy straw skeps best but that brings the challenge, not only of making them, but also providing shelter for them. Whilst I can only dream of a stone wall with bee boles I have been given a wooden shelter with greased metal legs (good for detering squatter-mice) and new roof felt. It is possible to take a small amount of honey from a skep – cut out a single comb – and the thermal properties of straw are second to none. I am gradually replacing my commercial and National hives with Warres and skeps. All that remains to be done before swarm season is to finish my second skep…