On sunny days recently I've been going into the garden to check for bee activity at the hive. For many weeks now the only way to gauge if they were still there has been to look at the debris beneath the hive or press an ear to the outside and listen to the faint buzzing from within. It was with great pleasure that I looked again in early February and saw bees coming and going. There weren't many of them, only ten at the most, but it was encouraging to see them on the wing.
Pollen colour guide
A few days later, on another sunny day, I looked again and was delighted to see dozens of bees milling about on the outside of the hive and many coming in with pollen. Pollen is in short supply in February, but the bees clearly know where to find it. The pollen the bees were carrying was in varying shades of yellow and orange and looking at a pollen colour chart suggests that blue and yellow crocus, willow and snowdrop (Galanthus spp.) flowers are the most likely to have been foraged.
Willow (Salix alba) grows along the banks of the nearby River Windrush and flowers early in the year, providing a useful source of early pollen and nectar. Snowdrops and crocuses are both common in local gardens and I've put in quite a few more since we've lived here. The large-flowered snowdrop, Galanthus elwesii flowers two weeks earlier in this garden than Galanthus nivalis, giving the bees a longer season of foraging those flowers.
Indicators of health
Looking at the bees themselves, I was pleased to see shiny bodies and wings with no signs of deformity. There was a great deal of activity and it wasn't easy to track the bee's movements, but I did notice that some gathered in small groups, as if gossiping, and what may have been grooming behaviour. Grooming amongst bees isn't something I've seen before so I'll be keeping an eye on it.
On the ground in front of the hive, I noticed three dead bees – alarming, but it's natural for a few bees to die over winter and some beekeepers report finding dozens or even hundreds of corpses in late winter, so there's no reason to be concerned. On the hive itself are small streaks on the wood near the entrance, evidence of the bees answering the 'call of nature'.
All in all, barring unavoidable calamity, it looks like a good start to the bee year. Further bee updates will follow!
Please note: the contents of this blog reflect the views of its author, which are not necessarily those of the RHS.