The extended election didn’t help. All this fussing over hung parliaments and coalitions has eaten into days when I would otherwise have been free to see to the bees. And when I have had time to spare, the weather has been against us - ridiculously so. I used to raise an eyebrow when I read old beekeeping manuals from 50 years ago advising me to wait until this month before making the first full spring inspection. After the coldest May temperatures for decades, I can understand why. Normally by now we’d be checking the hives to make sure that the bees weren’t about to swarm. There’s no danger of that happening at the moment, because it’s simply too cold for the colonies to develop in the normal way. In fact, it’s been so chilly that some of them may be running out of food.
I have been able to inspect one colony regularly though, the one closest to home on the garage roof. Here there was bad news and good news. The bad news was that I thought I had done for the queen. I’d found her wandering around on the frames as she does, and since she was unmarked, reckoned this was as good a time as any to make her readily identifiable. This is standard practice in beekeeping. You put a mark on her thorax, her upper back, so that later in the season when there are many more bees around, she is easy to spot. Some beekeepers use a different colour every year so that they can tell at a glance how old she is. The rest of us use Tipp-Ex, the correcting fluid beloved of typists everywhere. The process is relatively simple. You find the queen, and trap her under under a little net, about the size of a fifty pence piece. Once she is immobile, you can mark her, hold here there for a minute to let the fluid dry, and then let her go.
All this was easily done till it came to the last step, when I lifted up the net and - disaster - the queen came with it. The marking fluid had dried up in the bottle and become a bit gunky, so that it stuck 'Her Majesty' to the queen catcher. She was writhing around a bit, so I grabbed a twig and gently pushed her free. She scuttled away quickly, but I knew I hadn’t done her any good. So when on the next inspection there was no sign of her, I feared the worst; especially as there were no eggs or larvae to be seen - the first sign that all is well even if the queen is not immediately visible.
Even by my bad beekeeping standards, this was a first – killing the First Lady before spring had even fully sprung. If there was no queen, there would be no new bees to replace the winter population who would be dying out soon, and the colony would be done for.
So there was considerable relief when I went back for the third time, expecting to find a dwindling population, only to discover unsealed larvae in the hive. Not a whole lot, but enough to indicate that someone had been laying eggs within just the past few days. A bit more searching, and - joy! - there she was, indentifiable not just through her elongated body and distinctive features, but also due to the large, and now yellowing, splash of Tipp Ex on her back. Somehow she had survived the indignity of being prodded with a twig. And if not exactly laying in abundance, at least she was still doing something.
If the weather keeps holding back as it has, I may not may get much honey from this hive this year. But at least its future is assured - for now.
The Bad Beekeepers' Club
The Bad Beekeepers' Club by Bill Turnbull is published by Sphere at £12.99. Buy this book at a discount from the Saga Bookshop.