February, often the most dreary of months, has passed, leaving the promise of spring as the crocuses, daffodils, dwarf irises, daphne, camellia and other early flowering shrubs are attracting any hardy insect pollinators with their scent and colour as March continues, reports Ethel Irvine from Fermanagh Beekeepers' Association (FBA).

The first queen bumble bees have been on the wing and even some hoverflies have joined the honeybees in their search for nourishing pollen.

Prior to this, honeybees have mainly been taking cleansing flights on bright sunny days, but now the search for fresh pollen, which is necessary for rearing of brood, is on whenever the weather permits.

Our hardy native honeybees will forage at temperatures as low as 7C.

Last month, the report covered reminders about the first examination in spring.

Even though we look for signs of disease, as we do every inspection, the second examination should be devoted to looking for disease in the colonies.

This is a much more daunting prospect, since every frame containing brood must be examined.

As well as the usual equipment, have to hand something like toothpicks, and a means of taking a sample of bees.

It is useful to look at all the frames on either side of the brood nest since some may need replacing, because they are old and black with the pupal casings and faeces of the brood which has been reared in them.

Mark these frames with a view to replacing them as soon as they are empty of stores.

Frames with holes in the wax or frames where the wax is no longer attached to the sides or bottom are not a worry, unless the drawn wax is badly pitted and distorted, since the bees will have made the holes for their own convenience, and to aid their communication by means of the dances. (Another chapter entirely!)

Begin your examination by removing the dummy board and a couple of frames to give space to work.

As you go through the colony, look for the queen, and when she is found, catch her in a queen cage and keep her warm and safe.

Systematically, shake the bees from each frame, look at the brood, sealed and unsealed, and what you are looking for is anything different.

In the open brood, this would be any larvae which are not the perfect ‘c’ shape, are discoloured, and have lost their segmentation, suggesting European Foul Brood.

American Foul Brood shows its symptoms in sealed brood which should have uniform, perfect cappings, and anything which doesn’t, should be explored using the toothpick.

Most likely, what will be found under the cappings will be chalkbrood.

If there are any doubts about what is seen, a 5cm square of comb with the suspect cells should be cut out, wrapped appropriately and sent to the Entomology Department in AFBI (address on the website) with your name and address attached.

Also, it is good practice to take a sample of around 30 bees, freeze them to kill them (no scientist wants to open a package of live stinging insects in the laboratory), package in paper, and label, even if there are no signs of disease.

As you work your way through the colony, don’t forget to make and note down your usual observations, which are useful in determining its development and to help with your plans for it.

Put the queen back before closing up!

This is an appropriate time to mention the Bee Health Workshops 2024 which will visit Fermanagh tonight (Thursday), at 6.30pm in the Westville Hotel, Enniskillen.

It is necessary to book in, and details can be found on the UBKA website.

This is always a very informative evening for beekeepers, new and old, and allows time for beekeepers to catch up with each other over the free meal before the presentations.

The question, ‘Remind me of when swarming starts in Fermanagh?’ was asked in our WhatsApp group.

The answer is many-faceted, depending on a range of factors, some of which we have control over, and many where we have to accept what nature is doing.

It is important to remember that swarming is completely natural, as it is the only way that the colony has to reproduce itself.

The weather has great significance, both in late winter and through to late spring and early summer.

Generally speaking, small colonies will not swarm unless there are other factors in play.

Temperature in the colony may also hasten the inclination to swarm and, again, this is related to weather and the strength of the colony.

The genetics of the queen have a strong influence. I have had colonies which will swarm again and again.

If such swarms are caught, they should be re-queened as soon as possible, as otherwise they will continue to be a nuisance to both the beekeeper and the neighbours.

The diligence and skill of the beekeeper in reading his bees and knowing exactly when to super can affect the development of the swarming instinct also.

Diligence comes with regular inspections, keeping good records (which are used to inform actions) and having all the equipment standing ready for when it is needed.

The frequency of colony inspections changes as the colony develops. What works for me is a fortnightly inspection of all colonies until I find drone brood in one, after which I move to nine-day inspection of all colonies.

My queens are clipped, and if queens are not clipped, the timing should be weekly.

The skills of reading the colony and supering come with experience!

Once queen cells are found, swarm control must be carried out, remembering that cutting down queen cells is not a method of swarm control, as the swarming instinct is still there and must be satisfied, but again, this is another chapter.

In January, the discovery of two colonies in trees blown down in the storm was described.

The fate of the colony which was moved into a hive remains to be seen, but Angela reports that the bees are flying in and out of the hive.

She does not particularly look forward to the day when she will be able to go through it to sort out the rescued comb, and fit in the conventional frames of foundation.

Her reward will be a valuable gene pool which can eventually be shared with other beekeepers.

The second colony, which was in the horizontal section of its fallen tree and protected from the elements, did not fare so well, as it was demolished by either a badger or a pine martin.

It was within easy reach of both, and obviously the honeybees were unable to defend themselves from attack, whether due to a reduction in numbers, or their inability to fly because of the cold.

The next meeting of FBA will be held on Thursday, March 28 at 8pm in Fermanagh House, Enniskillen.

The speaker is to be confirmed, and we would urge as many beekeepers as possible to attend, as we learn from each other and it is a good opportunity to ask about any problems – they may not be solved, but will certainly be discussed!