January finally warmed up enough for bees to venture out from hives, according to Ethel Irvine of Fermanagh Beekeepers’ Association, who writes on recent activities.

January started off as December had ended – cold and uninviting, but good for our honeybees, as they were confined to the safety of their hives.

Spikes of snowdrops showed above the ground, but otherwise there were very few signs of growth.

The last third of the month saw slightly higher temperatures, with most days above 7C, which was warm enough for the hardy Fermanagh-adapted bees to venture out for cleansing flights and, at times, to gather orange or yellow pollen from the few sources available to them – most likely gorse, which seems to bloom in various amounts for most of the year.

Honeybees have an expandable rectum which gives them the ability to store waste matter until there is a break in inclement weather, allowing them to defecate away from the hive.

This is one of their defences against the spread of disease in the hive.

If a diseased bee defecates in the hive, the only means which the bee has to clean it up is with their mouth parts, and any pathogen present will quickly infect others.

The snowdrops, incipient for such a long time, have opened out their petals to invite any pollinator in the area to visit them.

Our viburnum dawn showed its pink flowers against the sky, although it was not warm enough for its perfume to spread round the garden, and the witch hazel is glowing brightly – spring will soon be here, even though, in Fermanagh, the crocuses have not yet presented their stamens, heavily laden with orange pollen, to the grateful bees.

Last year the crocuses opened fully in the winter sunshine, but the cold restricted the ability of the bees to fly from their hives to collect the coveted pollen.

This is not a time for beekeepers to become complacent. Queens will be gradually increasing their rate of egg laying with an equivalent demand on stores, both pollen and honey, as the workers feed the hatching larvae.

Beekeepers can provide either pollen collected from colonies in times when there is a surplus going into the hives, or an artificial pollen if they believe there is a shortage of pollen in their area in spring, but bees much prefer to use fresh pollen.

Fresh pollen has been shown to have substances derived from the parent plants which cannot be replicated in commercially produced pollen substitutes, and which add to the bees’ ability to combat disease.

Here, we are fortunate in that most apiaries are situated in an environment with many plants which produce pollen.

We can also plant spring-flowering bulbs and shrubs close to our apiaries so that in the cooler spring days bees do not have to fly too far to get pollen.

Perhaps we could also encourage our neighbours to follow suit, helping not only honey bees but all the early pollinators?

Honey stores we can supplement with fondant which is why we should continue be hefting our hives until we can open them to assess their situation more accurately.

I have had my first sting of the year! Hefting a polystyrene nucleus hive, I thought that it was a little light, so I put on some fondant.

Despite always preaching about being prepared, I forgot to bring the homemade eke which I use to make room for the fondant, and had to lift the roof a second time.

A single bee took exception and made her feelings known.

It is interesting to note that there are still signs of freshly chewed cappings underneath the hives which have been given fondant, so cells are being emptied, leaving more space for the queen to lay.

A check on the amount of fondant being used will be interesting.

We are coming to the time of year when we anxiously wait to see that all our hives are flying.

It is worth noting that bees from all hives will not fly out at the same time of day – the orientation of the entrance, the time at which the sun hits the roof, the influence of wind across the entrance, and even the traits of the bees in a particular colony will all have an influence.

What we must not do is succumb to the temptation to ‘have a quick peep’ for our own gratification, or indeed to impress the members of our Association with our beekeeping!

Every inspection should have a definite purpose, and all observations noted.

For the small-scale beekeeper, the first inspection is usually on a fine, warm day (which might come in February – but don’t panic if it doesn’t), and its purposes are to give an indication of the number of seams of bees in the brood chamber, to quickly observe the brood to ensure that the colony is queen-right, and to ensure that there is space for the queen to lay.

Bring a couple of frames of drawn foundation for each hive, take out a frame of food from each side of the brood nest, and slip the drawn foundation into the spaces.

Note what has been done so that you can compare with the next and fuller inspection to estimate the progress of the colony.

On a less positive note, remember to close up any hive which has died out, and if possible, send samples of bees to AFBI for disease testing.

Association’s AGM

The annual general meeting of the association was held at the end of January.

Reports from the Secretary, Treasurer and Chairman were given before the election of officers for 2023.

Most of the Association activities – the exception being the annual safari – resumed after the worst of the danger from Covid-19 had passed.

The monthly Zoom online meetings were replaced by a hybrid system where our face-to-face meetings were supplemented by a Zoom connection for those unable to attend in person.

The Honey Show, barbecue, queen rearing this summer under the auspices of the Native Irish Honey Bee Society (NIHBS), and demonstrations at various community activities, all resumed.

In education, both the ‘Introduction to Beekeeping’ and ‘Proficiency in Beekeeping’ courses had continued throughout the lockdowns but, with access to the apiary permitted, were more satisfactory for tutors, candidates and examiners alike. Association membership now stands at more than 100.

At the election of officers, presided over by Hugh Mannix, Stephen Hey was elected as Chairman; Jackie Barry was elected as Vice-Chairman; and Lorraine Wild, William Martin and Emma Irwin were re-elected as Honorary Secretary, Honorary Treasurer and Apiary Manager respectively.

Assistant Honorary Secretary is Eileen Treacy, and Committee members are Wendy Buchanan, Noel McAllister, Brian Dane, Ian Irwin, Kelly Harris and Thomas McCaffrey.

At the annual dinner, held in the Enniskillen Hotel after the AGM, Brian Dane was awarded a well-deserved Life Membership of Fermanagh Beekeepers’ Association for his dedication to the work of the association.

He has acted as Chairman, has taken a leadership role in establishing the link to the NIHBS queen rearing initiative, is the tutor for the ‘Proficiency in Beekeeping’ course, and always supports the more mundane aspects of the work of the association, such as apiary maintenance etc.

The next meeting of the Association will be held on Thursday, February 23 at 8pm in Fermanagh House.

The speaker is to be decided, but be assured, it will be enjoyable and everyone interested in bees and beekeeping will be welcome.