PETER Longbottom, of the Wharfedale Beekeepers Association tells us Spring is when it all kicks off for bees.

IT is strong colonies that produce the most honey. Success in the craft of beekeeping is to foster strength while controlling a strong colony’s urge to swarm, at the same time managing this urge to breed from strength. Spring is when it all begins. The only trouble with spring for beekeepers is that it takes such a long time coming. Honeybees don’t really get going until the temperature is in the teens, and one warm Friday does not a spring make.

The bees will have begun to warm up the centre of their cluster in January so that the queen can lay eggs and begin to build up the colony in anticipation of early spring flowers. Pollen is needed to feed the larvae once the eggs have hatched. Some will have been stored last autumn but the over-wintering foragers will have to brave the cold to visit snowdrops, crocus, whitethorn and the like. Given the weather, there is a step change once the dandelion comes into flower offering both nectar and pollen ‘by the acre’ . With no oil seed rape in this area, it is the dandelion which is the best colony builder (please gardeners, let ‘em grow!). The old-timers recommended that a honey super be added to the hive at this time, not so much as to gather dandelion honey (not the best) but to give the busy foraging workers somewhere to rest away from the frenetic activity in the expanding brood nest. As soon as there is a little warmth in the sun, the beekeepers first real job in the apiary is to change the floorboards. The warm moist conditions in the hive give rise to all sorts of detritus over six months and it is good hygiene to replace all with thoroughly cleaned ones.

All the above can happen without delving into the living quarters of the brood box which must wait until air temperatures rise to “shirt sleeve gardening weather”, lest the precious early brood be chilled. Earlier observation of pollen being taken into the hive will have confirmed that the queen is laying and all should be well. If it isn’t, failure of the colony can be expected. Losing ten per cent of colonies for any number of reasons is par for the course. Seeing how the colony is developing is interesting but the main purpose of all examinations (discovery of serious disease excepted) is to check for the presence of queen cells. These indicate that the colony is preparing divide by swarming thus reducing the strength of the hive. Since there is only ever (well nearly ever) one queen in a hive, swarming is the only way that honeybees can expand the number of colonies and their territory. The craft of beekeeping is to control this instinct by understanding what triggers it (and taking evasive action) or manipulating the colony so that its ‘mind set’ thinks that it has swarmed. How is this achieved you may ask?

No single honeybee is sufficient unto itself. A colony of honeybees is a super-organisation with different ages and stages of workers doing different tasks, the queen and drones being the only ‘specialists’. Before a swarm emerges the colony needs to be complete – eggs, larvae. workers of all ages, drones and, of course, a queen. Devoid on any element, and the bees will not ‘contemplate’ swarming by producing queen cells. Take any element away and the swarm can be frustrated - in the short term. Removing the queen into a nucleus box with attendant workers is one way, but there are many more sophisticated manipulations which enhance bee breeding and colony strength.The choreography of swarming is triggered by the workers. The (old) queen, who has been starved to get her into flying trim, quits the hive with about half of the flying bees, leaving all the young house bees, brood and stores to fend for themselves and (more importantly) to nurture a developing, replacement queen. The swarm eventually erupts from the hive and, after a short flight, will cluster on a convenient branch/post/wall/car whilst scout bees roam the surroundings in search of a suitable nest site. At this early stage in the swarm, while the bees have no nest to defend, is mild mannered. The bees will have filled their honey stomachs before departure for use in their new home, and as a consequence would find it difficult to sting even if they were inclined to do so. Swarms may look, and sound, menacing but rarely are. Wharfedale Beekeepers Association (WBKA) has 'swarm officers' dotted round Craven whose roll it is to collect precious swarms in this early stage. A list with telephone numbers is on its web site A swarm in its scouting stage is pretty obvious from the noise and shear numbers of bees in the air, measured in thousands. When they have found a new home, the activity may be less obvious. If you suspect from bee activity that a swarm has taken up residence too close for comfort, before calling out a swarm officer, please, please look, with care, and establish that the insects are small sleek and brown honeybees and not rotund and hairy -many types of bumble bee. These too may seem to be flying busily from a nest site – a bird box perhaps - but are no threat, are useful garden pollinators and should be encouraged to stay where they are.Meanwhile, back in the old hive a virgin queen will soon emerge and, not long after, set out on a mating flight where she may mingle with a host of drones gathered from up to six miles away attracted to a ‘drone congregation area’. She may mate with several of these before return to the hive which she will then not leave until a year or two, when it is her turn to follow a swarm. As the only queen, through life she will be cosseted, fed and lay up to 2000 eggs per day. As spring advances and the colony grows to sufficient strength, there comes a time when the inflow of nectar exceeds the colony’s breeding requirements. This is when the bees begin to convert the nectar into honey and store it “for the future”. Beekeepers give the hive what is known as a ‘super’ to store this honey, having first placed a ‘queen excluder’ over the brood nest. It is important to stop the queen from laying in the super, thus contaminating, the edible honeycomb. Roll on summer – a bit of warmth in spring would not come amiss either!