The month of March is both dreaded and looked forward to in equal measure by beekeepers all over Ireland, says Ethel Irvine from Fermanagh Beekeepers Association.

“It is dreaded because at last we will know whether or not our bees have survived the winter and looked forward to because we will soon be able to open up the hives and renew our acquaintance with the inmates.

“At the moment all hives are flying strongly and the bees can be seen all over the garden looking for the pollen necessary for brood rearing. Crocuses, spring flowering heathers, quince, flowering currant, pulmonaria and even the small early daffodils are receiving attention as the bees fill their pollen baskets with the yellow and pale brown protein rich pollen. There is a number of spring plants which a beekeeper can plant in his garden, even a small one, so that bees do not have too far to fly on these cooler days for forage.” She said, “While it is encouraging to see the bees flying, do not take it for granted that the bees in the hive are alive. Pollen going in at the entrance can be taken as a positive sign of brood rearing, although those of us of a pessimistic nature will be wondering if the queen is a drone layer or if she has disappeared and laying workers have taken over. With either of these the hive has no future but we cannot find out for sure until the weather is warmer.

“It is worth spending some time watching the entrances to see the pattern of flying. Some bees will leave the hive and immediately fly off in a straight line to the forage. Some will come out and fly in circles of increasing radius and gradually gaining height. These bees are out for perhaps only their first or second flights of the season and they are fixing a picture of their own hive and its surroundings so that they can return safely. These may also be flights for defecation since bees will never soil their own nests. “Also, watch for bees leaving one hive and flying back to another. This means that the first hive is being robbed and it should be closed up immediately, as explained last month. Looking into the hive will tell the beekeeper nothing as he will be seeing the robber bees in the hive. To be sure have a quick peep when no bees are flying.

“On warm days in March, the temptation to examine the brood nest is hard to resist. If you have a specific purpose in mind, opening the brood chamber may be justified but generally, it is not a good idea to disturb the work of the hive too early in the year. The queen is getting into full lay and the foraging bees are finding out the locations of plants yielding more plentiful pollen. The nurse bees are tending to the larvae and their other duties and only the beekeeper would be gratified by the disruption. However, continue to keep a close eye on the stores, feeding fondant early in March if necessary.

“If the bees are to be moved to pollinate canola or apples, they must be at full strength. The colony may be stimulated to produce more brood by the feeding thin syrup. The beekeeper must estimate when his colonies will be needed for pollination and he should give the syrup six weeks before this date to have bees foraging. This supply of syrup leads the colony to believe that there is a nectar flow on and the queen responds by laying more prolifically. It takes three weeks from the egg is laid until the bee is hatched and a further three weeks for the new bee to reach the age for foraging. Feeding for stimulation is a tricky business because there may be so many stores in the hive that the queen has no room to lay. In this case some of the capped stores from the winter must be removed and substituted with empty drawn comb. A second hazard arises from our unpredictable temperatures, both during the day and at night. The brood nest may be expanding satisfactorily but if the temperature drops appreciably, the bee cluster will contract to help preserve the body heat of the bees and this may leave parts of the expanding brood nest exposed to low temperatures and these areas will die.

“The Annual Conference of the Ulster Beekeepers’ Associations will be held at the Greenmount Campus of Cafre tomorrow(Friday) and Saturday, March 20 and 21. The Conference is always a good way of keeping our beekeeping knowledge up to date and affords an opportunity to meet with other beekeepers, watch the demonstrations, buy the equipment needed for the coming season and to browse the book stores. For more information go to the web site

“The next meeting of Fermanagh Beekeepers’ Association will be on Thursday next, March 26 at 8pm in the Railway Hotel, Enniskillen. The speaker will be Mr. Sam Clawson from the Agri Food and Biological Institute (AFBI). He will give us the latest information on the spread of the small hive beetle, the larvae of which is the latest threat to colonies of bees, and of the measures which we must take to prevent its arrival in Ireland. Everyone will be very welcome at this meeting.