Bees struggled their way through the first half of April, existing on the little forage which they gathered in the short bursts of favourable weather but as conditions improved more and more pollen was brought back to the colonies, demonstrating that brood nests were expanding at a favourable rate, writes Ethel Irvine in her report for Fermanagh Beekeepers’ Association.

Most beekeepers in Fermanagh managed to carry out first inspections in the third week of the month and what they found mostly fulfilled the expectations deduced from observations at hive entrances.

Brood nests were large and most colonies needed a super added above a queen excluder.

At this time of year, in our locality, supers are not added in the expectation of honey being stored in them but to give the bees space in which they can move around comfortably, sharing food with each other and feeding the queen.

They communicate the needs of the colony, whether for nectar or pollen to feed the ever increasing numbers of larvae or water to dilute the honey so that they can use it.

Contact with the queen means that that the bees pick up some of her pheromones and as they make contact with other bees, the message that she is alive and well and doing her job is passed very rapidly around the colony, encouraging the team work which epitomises the nature of a honey bee colony.

In my own colonies, in mid-April, I was surprised to find drone brood and numbers of drones. I normally see drones about three weeks later than this and have taken on board the warning that swarming may be earlier than usual and indeed there have been reports of swarm cells in colonies from members of our Association.

This is unusually early for Fermanagh and is probably due to our warm winter when colonies maintained a larger than usual number of worker bees as the queen continued to lay throughout.

One of our members has already carried out an artificial swarm procedure on one of his colonies, emphasising the need to examine colonies once a week.

Always keep in mind that colony inspections stress the bees, leaving them more open to infection, so don’t be tempted to inspect without a purpose. If queens are clipped there is a little more leeway in this timing but the time between inspections should not be more than nine or 10 days.

Clipping a queen’s wing will not stop her from leaving the hive with around half the bees in the colony but it means that when the swarm settles on a nearby bush or hedge or fence to make a final decision upon the location of their new nest, they will very quickly realise that the queen, being unable to fly with them, is absent.

A colony without a queen cannot survive so they cut their losses and return to their original home. Breaking down queen cells is NOT a method of swarm control.

The instinct to swarm is completely natural as it is the only method the colony has to reproduce itself and we must make the bees believe that they have swarmed. The artificial swarm method does this as it separates the queen and the flying bees from the brood.

When a colony swarms naturally, the queen and the flying bees leave the hive, leaving the brood, attended by mainly nurse bees, together with queen cells, in the nest.

By using the artificial swarm method we are mimicking the real thing and we are working with the bees, something we aim to do every time we carry out any procedure in the hive.

In addition, it is not necessary to find every single queen, only the sealed cells, which are easier to spot. Even experienced beekeepers can miss cells which are not fully fed and therefore not sealed.

I will not go into the detail of the method here but performing an artificial swarm is like following a recipe. All the equipment is taken from the store, and the instructions are followed step by step with the only difficult part (for all of us) being finding of the frame with the queen on it.

The proof of the pudding is when we find the old queen established and laying in the new colony and a young mated queen heading up the parent half. Just as if they had done it willing!

Members of the Fermanagh Beekeepers’ Association attended the South West Campus Food Fair organised by the students of the South West College. It was an opportunity to see the wonderful, environmentally friendly building as well as to promote our locally produced honey and other products of the hive.

Much has been written in the press recently about ‘fake’ honey but anyone who has tasted our local Fermanagh honey, or, indeed, any Irish honey, will be able to tell real from fake immediately.

Irish honey is noted for its flavour which comes from the wide range of flowering plants which are visited by the bees.

I find it miraculous that honey from the same area seldom has the same flavour two years running. So much depends upon nature – the amount of sunshine, the rain and even the wind – and is outside of the control of the beekeeper with flowers producing nectar for different lengths of time and sometimes not at all.

The return of the Bee Health Workshop, organised by the Ulster Beekeepers’ Association and introduced by John Hill, Chairman, was much appreciated by many beekeepers from the county and surrounding areas.

We were welcomed with a meal and coffee before hearing Dan Basterfield NDB (National Diploma in Beekeeping) speak about what healthy brood, both sealed and unsealed, looks like and the signs and symptoms of diseases we should watch out for as we examine our colonies.

He was followed by Tom Williamson, Chief Bee Inspector with DAERA, who told us of the difficulties involved in re-establishing the pre-Covid level of inspections in apiaries. He explained that at the moment he is limited to responding to requests from beekeepers who believe they have a problem.

He emphasised the danger from the Asian Hornet and the steps we should take to prevent its establishment in Ireland. Much of his department’s time is spent examining the large numbers of queens, with attendants, being imported into Northern Ireland from Europe. Many of these will be forwarded to Great Britain but some will remain in NI.

FBKA would encourage the use of locally adapted bees with members raising as many queens as possible from their own proven stock, thus reducing both the risk of importing diseases not already here and of the hardy genetics of the apis mellifera mellifera bee being compromised.

Members of the ‘The Introduction to Beekeeping’ class had their introductory session in the apiary at the end of April.

The sun shone on the hives as tutors demonstrated how to approach and open a colony, how to handle frames and they encouraged the new-to-bees to identify what they were seeing in the brood boxes.

By the end of the morning the students were handling the frames of bees with confidence and were very enthusiastic about the prospect of soon having bees of their own.

As I write this at the end of April, in Fermanagh the tight white buds of the hawthorn are beginning to peep through, as are the candles on the chestnut, to be followed by the sycamore and many other flowering plants so hopefully May will prove to be a fruitful month for us all.