It’s March. The weather has alternated between sog and freeze. I’m watching eagerly for spring but it’s late this year and it’s making me grumpy. On the upside it’s time for one of my favourite journeys, en route to the Royal Agricultural Showground. The road rises and falls with the landscape — from hills to reservoirs, mountain passes to pastures, the landmarks are as familiar as old friends. This is my regular March pilgrimage to the spring gathering of beekeepers. Snow huddles in the lee of hedges and flecks the mountain flanks. Just as in previous years I look keenly for the signs of spring.
They’re not there.
The February-blooming snowdrops are there, nodding their heads as we pass. There’s a sprinkling of primroses along the hedges yet only a third of the flowers at most are out. But what else to look for?
The signs of spring
Personally I think the signs of spring are particular to each person, depending on where you live or even if you’re interested. I look for:
- Native primroses. These provide a good food source for emerging bumblebee queens, honey bees are less interested but show that spring is on the way.
- Catkins on hazel and willow. Although they’re wind pollinated they both provide a vital early pollen source to fed the expanding brood. It also tells me to start taking the hay fever medication (more on honey and hay fever later in the year).
- The green fuzz of buds on trees and hedges.
- Lighter evenings, an opportunity to spend time in the garden or with the bees. Although to be fair this is more to do with the clocks changing.
- Lambs in the fields. This depends more on when the ewes were sent to the rams than the season.
Watching spring arrive is important for beekeepers — as the weather warms the bees take to the wing in their search for nectar and pollen to feed the colony. If there’s not much nectar available the colony will eat its honey stores, so as I mentioned before this can be a critical time when a colony can starve. Unlike their fuzzy cousins the bumblebees, honey bees can’t fly when it’s cold. My bees don’t fly in the cold but luckily I appear to have Welsh bees who stick two antennae up at all but heavy rain and fly anyway.
Beekeepers also wait with anticipation for a warm day for the first inspection of the season; I’ll blog about this when it happens. This is a very important inspection — the first chance to really see how they’re doing. Another key first inspection indicator is the flowering currant; while it’s good to see for me this isn’t a sign of spring as you don’t see this plant as often as you see the primroses and their friends.
The signs of spring vary according to where you are, the weather and other biological factors. Although it doesn’t feel like it between sog and freeze, the Met Office says this March has been cold but not as bad as it can be. The National Trust, Countryfile, BBC Nature and Springwatch all have their own lists on the signs of spring. Perhaps you can make your own list.
The Welsh Beekeepers Spring Convention
The Welsh Beekeepers Association (WBKA) is the umbrella organisation for most of the local beekeeping associations in Wales. Pete and I have visited the Spring Convention for several years, the joint lure of cheaper equipment in the trade hall and some informative lectures on various aspects of beekeeping. Beekeepers from all over Wales descend on the Royal Welsh Showground and underline the fact that there’s no such thing as a typical beekeeper: I think the only thing that unites us is our love of honey bees.
Walking into the trade hall echoes the thrill of beekeeping: the hum of conversations, the smell of beeswax and wooden hives. I enjoy shopping the stands for equipment, searching out what I need, comparing prices and marvelling at the bizarre pieces of kit that wouldn’t look out of place in a medieval torture chamber.
I thoroughly enjoy the lectures which vary from year to year and can be on all sorts of bee related topics. There’s alwaysone focusing on a piece of current research which appeals to my science brain. I like the opportunity to question the scientists too.
It’s also handy to have the Bee Inspectors there so you can get the latest information on bee diseases and pests to brush up your knowledge before the season starts.
I used to wonder why it was on so early in the year but it’s good timing: the beekeeping season hasn’t started so beekeepers have the time to get together and the weather is (usually) a bit better — there’s unlikely to be snow although 2018 begged to differ.
What the bees taught me this time
OK, I’ve not been near the bees this month, but here’s what I’ve learned:
- Patience, patience and more patience.
- Food sources for honey bees and indeed all pollinators are vital this time of year. I’ll blog about this at some point but in the meantime here’s a useful list from the RHS.
- There’s always more to learn.