Party Bees

Back in January I wrote a post about the beekeeper’s biggest fear – their hive not making it through the winter. We’d just had one of the coldest November/Decembers on record and we were waiting for a warm sunny day to open up the hive and start feeding them as their honey stores might start to run out soon.

Well, January arrived and with it came the odd warm sunny day so we opened up the hive and gave them two kilos of fondant – bees prefer their sugar as fondant in the winter rather than syrup which they’d have to evaporate first. Two weeks passed and the fondant disappeared. And the hive, far from looking sparse as the bee population began to die off over the winter, looked rather healthy. We carried on feeding them two kilos every fortnight and the hive started looking on the full side. As the temperatures rose in February, the bees became active.

This has been quite a surprise. We’d expected a panicky winter with the bees, except for the odd warm sunny day, staying in the hive until April. And even on those few sunny days the numbers of bees out flying would be small. But this last week the bees have become very active. By mid morning on a sunny day the front of the hive is crawling with bees. A cloud of bees circle above the hive. You can’t get closer than three yards to the hive without being buzzed.

So, what are they doing? At first we thought they were going to swarm but it’s far too early for that. Opening up the hive, it looks as though the queen is laying, so there are a lot of bees hunting for pollen and nectar and water. And a lot of new bees off on orientation flights to get to know their surroundings. We’ve seen the pollen coming in – you can spend hours watching your bees, noting the colour of the pollen on their legs, and then trying to identify the source by its colour. Currently the pollen is all creamy yellow.

As there are hundreds of hazels nearby teeming with golden catkins, we’re almost certain that’s where the pollen is coming from but, strangely, we can’t prove it. We’ve stood under hazel hedges, peered into the canopies, listened for the telltale buzz… And seen and heard not a single bee. We’ve seen loads on the grass, rock and moss but none on the hazel.

Our first thought was that the bees were looking for water and that’s why they were on the wet grass and rock. But then we started our annual muckathon – spreading our mountain range of finest composted horse manure (courtesy of our French Trotter) onto the vegetable garden. The straw on the muck mountain was covered in bees. This is baffling.

We posted this to a bee forum to see if anyone knew what was going on. No one did, but several people reported their bees eschewing the flowers and catkins in favour of soil and grass.

Our best guess is that they’re looking for minerals. Most animals do this – it’s one of the reasons farmers put salt and mineral licks in their fields – but I’d never heard of bees doing it.

The other possibility is that composted hay has fermented and the bees are getting drunk. Come to think of it I did hear a lot of singing coming from the hive.


Chris Dolley is an English author living in France with a frightening number of animals. His novel – Resonance (Baen) – can be downloaded for free here. More information about his other work can be found on his BVC bookshelf

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Party Bees — 9 Comments

  1. > Come to think of it I did hear a lot of singing coming from the hive.

    LOL!

    How interesting! I’d heard of butterflies licking human skin for salt, but not bees on manure piles. Yellow jackets, yes, but not bees.

    Congrats on your bees making it through the winter!

  2. Glad the girls have made it. You’ve got me wondering what are party drinking songs for bees. “Bee true to me?” “99 bottles of honey on the wall?”

    With so many bees so soon, are you preparing another hive, in an effort to keep them from leaving?

  3. Kathi, we bought another hive last month. The plan is to trick the bees into thinking they’ve swarmed some time in May by taking half the bees out of the old hive and putting them, and some queen cells, in the new hive. It’s a tricky manoeuvre and I’ll post about it when we attempt it.

  4. Deb, insects are fascinating and, round here, they seem to do things that no one seems to write about online. Like hornets that gather in the top of an ash tree at dusk. There’s no nest there, but they seem drawn to it – food? – I just don’t know.

    May beetles like to gather in the top of our cherry tree at dusk but that’s because it’s a Singles Cherry Tree and there’s lots of sex:)

  5. Brenda, we didn’t harvest any honey last year but we intend to this year. Last year we got the bees late – May – and they swarmed which set the hive back a month. Also you need a centrifuge, which is expensive, to extract the honey from the combs. We’re looking to part-buying a centrifuge with a group of other beeks (official nomenclature for beekeepers:) this year