Straight after breakfast I went to see the bees. My first task was to cut back the brambles encroaching on the hives, which has been on the To Do list for a long time, with a note to do it on a cold day when the bees wouldn't come out to investigate what I was doing. The hives are arranged so that their entrances face away from the centre of the patch of rough grass where I keep them, which is for my convenience during inspections so that I can move about the apiary without bees shooting out of their front doors and straight into me. There is a corresponding disincentive to stand right in front of the hive entrances to trim the brambles, which had advanced on two sides until they were virtually touching the hives. I wasn't sure how the bees would react to the prolonged sound of me moving about near their hives, even though I was only going to use secateurs and not a strimmer. Bees can be funny about the noise of power driven machinery, and by this stage of the year the Systems Administrator keeps an eye out for them while cutting up the fallen tree at the far end of the meadow, in case they decide to take umbrage.
Unfortunately on the cold, damp days that we had I didn't feel up to doing much outside, and then suddenly it turned warm, and I realised that we were halfway through March. Strulch or no Strulch, I needed to devote a couple of hours to the bees. Cutting down the brambles was only the preliminary to opening up the hives, and I wore my bee suit, plus the Systems Administrator's welding gloves over my bee gauntlets while I tackled the brambles. Cutting back brambles while wearing a net veil that you really don't want to tear takes a certain amount of concentration, and as I worked I realised that the morning was turning out much warmer than I'd expected and I had to retreat to a safe distance so that I could unveil myself while I took my fleece off. The bees became very active, confirming that all four colonies certainly had live bees in them, and I was pleased to see that the foragers were bringing back pollen, suggesting that they were raising brood, but luckily they didn't seem to take much notice of me, even when I worked very close to the hives or at the point where sweat began to run down my face. Bees hate the smell of sweat.
The next stage was the thing I have been obscurely worried about since last autumn, when I realised after deciding to leave the hives to over-winter with supers of their own honey that I would need to remove the queen excluders so that the cluster of bees could move up into the super without leaving the queen behind below the excluder. The question that loomed in my mind was, what would I do in spring when it came to the time to put the queen excluder back if by then the queen was laying up in the super? I tried asking a couple of other beekeepers at a dinner we had in Frinton, but they didn't have any definitive answer. Work it out as you go along depending on what the bees are doing, seemed to be the consensus.
I started with the hive that contained the most bees when I trickled the oxalic acid on back in January. There were quite a lot of bees in the super. I blew smoke down into it until most of them had retreated, and removed a frame from the centre of the super to see what they were doing up there. They had eaten some of their stores, but I could not see any brood, or even eggs. Bee eggs are not the easiest things to see, especially wearing a black net over your face, but the light was good and I though I would probably have seen them if there had been any to see. Besides, before the queen lays in a patch of comb the workers polish it for her, and the comb on the frame I was looking at hadn't been polished. I checked some more frames, ignoring the outer ones because experience teaches that the queen always starts somewhere in the middle, and only ever uses the outer frames in high season when she is running out of space. No brood, no eggs that I could see. I smoked the bees a little more, thinking that since the queen normally runs away from the light that if she had been originally been up in the super she probably wasn't by now, and lifted it off.
Putting the queen excluder back over the brood box and under the super was not the swift, seamless action I'd anticipated, and it's just as well that it was a warm day. The bees had been busy over the winter filling in the gap between the two sets of frames with brace comb, which needed scraping off so that the queen excluder would lay flat. Bees kept popping up out of the box to see what I was doing, and since I didn't want to squash them I had to keep breaking off from scraping to give them further puffs of smoke or brush them gently aside with my finger. Given that all the time the hive was open heat was being lost from the brood nest I really didn't want this stage to take too long.
I reassembled the hive, removed the strip of galvanised metal with bee-sized holes in it that had been pinned over the door all winter to stop mice getting in, and felt reasonably happy that things had gone well. Then I went through the same process again with the other hives and did not find signs the queens had been laying in any of the supers. Bees do like to store their food above the brood nest, so while the queens might have found their way upstairs eventually it seems it is not their first choice. If we have a warmish day next week I could look in the supers again to double check that none have signs of a queen living in them, but I'm fairly confident. Then I shall have to wait until it's warm enough to inspect the brood frames and find out what's going on, but that probably won't be this month.