The latest spell of weather has been dominated by rainy days, interspersed with other rainy days with the odd up blinks of sun, says Ethel Irvine, in her July report for Fermanagh Beekeepers’ Association.

She stated: “This has had a detrimental effect on our honey bee colonies as they have not been able to collect the pollen and nectar necessary for their wellbeing and indeed, at times, their very survival. It was distressing to see so much bramble and clover in bloom and not being visited by our honey bees. 

“On the positive side, our strawberries and raspberries have been very well pollinated by the bees in the better weather early in the season. 
One of the questions I have been asked recently concerns feeding bees at this time of year. A useful rule of thumb to remember is that a full colony requires about 2.5kg of stores every week. 

"Thus, when the colony is being examined, the beekeeper can estimate how much stores are in the hive by looking at the brood nest to see what fraction of each frame is occupied by honey or nectar. 

“Knowing that a complete frame of stores weighs 2.5kg, he will be satisfied that the colony has enough food to last until his next inspection, should it rain for that complete week. 

“The spell of good weather we had a little earlier ensured that many colonies have ample stores in the supers above the brood box and, until this is used by them, there are no worries about feeding. If a colony is discovered with bees with their heads buried in the cells of the brood nest, that colony is very close to collapse. 

“The bees are trying to retrieve every last drop of food and they will be lethargic and, sometimes, even appear to be dead. 

“The first treatment is to spray them with a warm sugar solution, made up in proportions of 1kg of sugar to 1litre of hot water. This spray means that the sugar is in direct contact with their bodies and, as they clean themselves and each other, the sugar gives them energy. The rate of recovery is miraculous! 

“A full feed can then be given to the colony in a contact or a rapid feeder, whichever suits.

“If a colony is short of stores and the beekeeper wishes to feed it and preserve the honey in his supers, he must ensure that the sugar solution which he gives to the bees is not stored in the supers. No-one likes to sit down to wheaten bread and honey, only to discover that what they have is wheaten bread and a sugar solution! 

“To avoid this, put the feeder on top of the brood nest, cover it with the crown board, and stack the supers on top of the crown board so that the bees have no access to them. The roof and supers must be ‘bee-proof’, otherwise the bees will discover a way in and ‘rob’ the supers, putting the loot in the brood nest where the beekeeper cannot access it easily. 

“If a nucleus hive has been made up with a couple of frames of brood and, either a mature queen cell or a virgin queen, it should be fed generously until it is well established and able to forage for itself. In all cases, care must be taken not to clog up the brood nest with stores so that the queen does not have enough space in which to lay.

“On opening my own colonies this week, not having been able to examine them during the colder rainy spell, I noticed that some of the queens had considerably slowed down their rate of laying. There were empty cells where bees had hatched out and other cells had nectar in them. This slowing down was due to the lack of pollen coming in to the colonies. 

“Without fresh pollen, bees cannot feed larvae and they control the queen’s laying by restricting her food. When looking at the brood nest, it was immediately apparent that there was no pollen in any of the cells in the ‘halo’ surrounding the brood nest. 

“However, we live in hope as bees are flying at every opportunity and it is encouraging to see the lime green pollen from meadowsweet going into the colonies as well as the more usual yellow and orange pollens from various plants. The second thing I found was that some colonies were making queen cells in preparation for swarming. Some of these cells were sealed meaning that the colony had already tried to swarm but, since the queen’s wings were clipped, the bees had returned to the colony to await the emergence of the first virgin queen. 

"In these cases, the beekeeper must look for the queen in the colony. If she cannot be found, usually a simple task since she has been marked, the planned artificial swarm method has to be modified by using a mature queen cell rather than the original queen. One or more nucleus colonies can be made up using some of the queen cells.            

“Early examinations had shown a greater than usual occurrence of chalk brood, probably due to the damper and warmer winter, since chalk brood is caused by a fungus which thrives in these conditions. 
“It was disturbing to find that there was a considerable amount of it in colonies again. 
“The resurgence was again probably due to the damp weather. 

“While we may not be expecting a great honey harvest, we can ensure that bees are as healthy as possible so that we can ensure their survival.”