"February has always been my least favourite month of the year and it has not disappointed so far!" says Ethel Irvine of Fermanagh Beekeepers' Association in her latest monthly report.

She recalled how the weather has been stormy with the occasional bursts of sunshine which remind everyone that February has not always gloomy.

"As we look around, the spring bulbs are showing their colours with the blues, yellows and cream crocuses with their orange-red eyes, the dwarf irises and daffodils leading the way. Shrubs such as Camellia and Daphne, with its unmistakeable scent, are also coming into bloom, while willow and the ever-present gorse or whin, are showing bright and clear in the fields and hedgerows. This awakening is good news for beekeepers whose bees have been seen foraging on the single blooms of Camellia and carrying into the hives pollen which is predominately yellow at this time of year. Pollen going into hives usually (since nothing is ever certain inside a beehive!) means that the queen is laying and the bees have larvae to feed.

"Pollen is the only source of protein and a range of minerals, alongside other substances, which the honeybees need for their survival. The nurse bees process the pollen so that they can secrete, from specialised glands, a product called brood food which is fed to the larvae. After a couple of days honey and pollen are added to the glandular secretion. Worker bee larvae are fed on demand with, according to some researchers, the little larvae giving off a pheromone, or chemical signal, to let the nurses know they are hungry. The nurse bees are constantly patrolling the crèche, checking on the health and food needs of their charges, visiting each one perhaps as many as 10 000 times. Larvae are just eating machines with a food conversion rate which would make any livestock keeper drool. Since the queen may lay in excess of 1000 eggs per day, the brood nest is a busy place. Each larva is fed for roughly five days, during which time their rate of growth is phenomenal, with the weight increasing by a factor of around 1500. This may seem incredible but what happens when the cell, with a larva which is now a little ball of protein, filling it, is sealed with a porous (the larva has to breathe) wax capping, is truly miraculous but that is for another day.

"Even though we have seen bees flying and carrying pollen, the danger time as regards food for the bees is not over. My bees still have plenty of winter stores. Any beekeeper who has been hefting his hives and finds them light should not hesitate to feed fondant as it is still too early to consider giving sugar syrup in Fermanagh. The danger of feeding fondant is that the bees will not be using the honey from the brood box, so not freeing up the extra cells which the queen requires as she lays increasing numbers of eggs as spring approaches. Entrances should be checked for debris which the bees may not have been able to clear but a strong hive should have no trouble in this respect. Bees are very hygienic and will remove dead bees and other detritus so that the threat of disease is reduced.

"We are coming to the time of year when the colonies will expand at a phenomenal rate. Even after all these years of beekeeping it still takes me by surprise. All equipment should be clean and ready to go. Plans for the season should be drawn up and any wax, frames etc. ordered. Hive record cards should be designed to suit the plans for the apiary, whether it is to produce nuclei, to expand the numbers of colonies or to concentrate on honey production. Seriously consider rearing queens from your best stock, even if only one or two, because the personal satisfaction in seeing these queens heading up colonies is immeasurable and, in addition, you will be conserving a local bee which is adapted to its environment.

"The Native Irish Honey Bee Society (NIHBS) is an Ireland-wide association which is dedicated to the preservation of the native black bee, a strain of Apis mellifera mellifera, which, for many years, had been reported by many leading experts, as existing, if at all, only in small isolated pockets throughout the island. This position was not supported by many beekeepers in Ireland and Michael Mac Giolla Coda in Glengarra Wood has led the fight to not only conserve but to actively promote the importance of a honeybee which has proved itself capable of evolving to thrive in in the variety of microclimates found in Ireland. In addition, much research has been carried out and with the increasing availability of DNA testing, as well as morphometry, it has been shown that the black bee is widespread throughout the island. In light of the fact that beekeepers who, looking for a ready supply of honeybees, are tempted to import queen bees or packages of honeybees from Europe which will carry with them the danger of dilution of the native bee gene pool as well as some exotic diseases, NIHBS has initiated an Ireland-wide programme to give beekeepers the skills necessary to rear queens for their own use and have a surplus to supply their own local beekeepers. The programme provides in-depth education, with a series of 15 x 2 hour Zoom lectures which start from basic facts such as hygiene rules which every beekeeper should obey, followed by question and answer sessions. These will be the foundation for the actual queen rearing sessions when the season arrives. In addition, basic requirements for queen rearing are supplied. While it is Association based, with the stipulation that those who participate are members of NIHBS, beekeepers from the surrounding area are free to join.

"The programme is in its second year and FBKA has been accepted by NIHBS and so the Lakeland Queen Rearing Group has been born! Its Administrator is Brian Dane and we are very fortunate to have Thomas McCaffery, who acted as a mentor to a group in 2021, as Team Leader. Thomas has led very practical-based queen rearing sessions in FBKA for a number of years so many of the Lakeland Group will have some experience of the problems encountered, including the vagaries of weather. The constitution of Fermanagh Beekeepers Association contains a phrase which encourages its members to keep native bees so it is exciting for us to be part of this scheme.

"Meetings of FBKA are held on the last Thursday of every month and we are delighted to be able to plan to meet in person for the first time in over two years. Our first meeting will be on Thursday. March 31 at 8.00pm in the Enniskillen Hotel. Fittingly, it will be devoted to those who took our beginners classes in beekeeping during the past two years under very difficult conditions. They will be presented with their certificates, together with a little lapel badge. Some of the group will speak about their experiences of what has been a very strange start to their beekeeping journeys.

"We look forward to seeing as many people as possible at the meeting, including those who are interested in taking up beekeeping in the future."