May Bee Notes


May marks the start of the spring honey flow from sources such as sycamore, horse chestnut, bluebell, fruit trees. To benefit from this flow colonies need to be strong. Indeed, the beekeeper’s skill is keeping colonies as strong as possible from May until August!

We have no way of predicting the weather or how long good foraging conditions may last, so my attitude is to try and take advantage of any nectar flow that comes along.

My colonies are not at full strength for the spring flow but should still be strong enough, weather permitting, to gather a small surplus. Hopefully, swarming preparations will not begin until the spring flow is over. The honey gathered in the spring is rich, dark and delicious!

I noticed a significant number of bees crawling on a path near my hives. It is useful to have this clear area as I would never have seen them crawling in the grass. I suspect they are victims of Varroa. I have sent a match box full of these dead bees to the research centre in Kinsealy for diagnosis.

Teagasc Bee Research Service

Kinsealy Research Centre,

Malahide Rd.

Dublin 17


Never open a hive unless you have a reason for doing so and know in advance for what you are going to do and what equipment you require to have on hand.

In early May the colonies should be checked to see that the queen has not suffered any ill effects as a result of clipping and marking. There is no need to find the queen, just check for the presence of patches of eggs.

Dones should be appearing in the hive. Bees work best when they have some drones but  note that  drones don’t  become fertile until they are twelve to thirteen days old.

The crucial thing is to make sure the queen has plenty of space to lay in. In a double brood chamber you might have to remove surplus stores of sealed honey and replace them with drawn comb. Do not give frames with foundation at this time unless you are prepared to feed syrup to simulate a nectar flow. Always try to do what nature intended. When do bees in the wild require to draw new comb? During a nectar flow or after they have swarmed.

If you don’t have a supply of drawn comb an alternative is to scarify the cappings on combs of stores with the corner of your hive tool to encourage the bees to move the stores, thus creating room on the periphery of the present brood nest into which the queen can expand.

A recent article from the Guardian Newspaper caught my attention. Happy Beekeeping!

“Camilla Goddard was sitting in a deckchair when she experienced what most people would frantically air slap away but she took it as a career omen. “As I was chatting to my friend, a honeybee landed on one hand and a bumblebee on the other. It just happened and I read it as a sign I should go into beekeeping,” she says.

Before Goddard’s beekeeping hobby graduated to career level, she studied English and history of art at Cambridge University. After that she set up her own arts consulting company serving regeneration areas of London with public art. Goddard, 41, from South-East London wanted to do something that had a more sustainable element to it. “I felt like I wanted to have more meaning. Life isn’t just doing one thing and that’s it. You don’t have to be one thing all the time.”

She isn’t exclusively a beekeeper, but bees are at the heart of her work. Along with beehive maintenance, Goddard visits schools and universities to give talks and educate people on the nature of bees, which is essential to make enough money. “You have to be a self-starter and business minded in this industry. In the first couple of years, you’re not going to make a lot of money,” she says. “I started making honey as a side line hobby while I had my arts consulting business. It’s very hard to start from scratch; you need to have some income to build it up.”

It can take up to a month for bees to produce a few pounds of honey but Goddard lays the foundations to get the process under way “I put frames of wax in the hives to save the bees some time and they’ll build cells from that. I’ll then spin and filter the honey out at the end into sterilised jars.” The honey from bees she keeps at St Ermin’s Hotel in St James’s Park ends up on the hotel’s menus.

In the interim, Goddard surveys the activity, on the lookout for unusual behaviour and ill health. “I go through every hive and look to find an unusual breed pattern and make sure the queen bee is OK.”

Bees are currently plagued with varroa mite in the UK, which she treats with a sprinkle of icing sugar. “I work symbiotically with the bees. I can tell if they’re in distress or aggressive, or when they’ve lost motivation because they become like an agitated army. To calm them down I waft smoke over the top of the hive,” she says.

The bees are very busy and perky as the temperature goes up. During the winter months a beekeeper’s job plateaus but preparation for the forthcoming season is under way. “I’ll make sure they have enough stores and haven’t been snowed in. There’ll be around 5,000 bees per hive in the colder months, which multiply to 10,000 in the springtime.”

Understanding the temperamental nature of bees will take the sting out of the work. “You do give off an energy by the way that you deal with them. If you handle them with slow patient movement, they’ll respond well. If you are rushing or fearful, it all becomes quite tense.”

As well as managing urban beehives, Goddard is also on call for bumblebee rescue. “If there is a building or landscaping project, I’ll be called to move a colony of bees in the roof to several miles away.”

You have to be prepared for strange domestic situations where ignorance is commonplace. “I went to collect a swarm once and somebody had thrown bleach all over them in an attempt to kill them and then used wasp spray,” she recalls.

“A colony of bees came down someone’s chimney into a bedroom, and they were trapped because the owner didn’t open the window. By the time I got there the bees were motionless and starving on the inside of the window so I put a box of honeycomb underneath and they immediately latched on to it.”

Being receptive to the demands of the industry and bags of enthusiasm are essential if you want to make a sustainable career out of beekeeping. Environmental awareness is a natural prerequisite but you won’t need formal qualifications to get started. Non-traditional routes will make you stand out, especially with transferable skills.”