This time of year, though it’s cold, wet and miserable, is a metaphorically sunny one for beekeepers. For it’s far too early to be bothered with doing anything, and although those rueful lists of all the things we forgot to buy in the sales keep appearing, unwritten, in our minds, they can safely be ignored in February. If Christmas and/or Self-Assessment haven’t robbed us of what we had, they’ll have forcibly reminded us of what we haven’t. That’s why now is traditionally the time when beekeepers enjoy a few days on the Devon Coast, or somewhere equally bracing, to restore minds and bodies sorely ravaged by the labours of last Season.
For the stay-at-homes, those for whom even that hope has been stolen by relatives or the Inland Revenue, there are a few things we can do to either salve what consciences we have, or get us out of the house, which are no doubt covered in sober detail elsewhere. We can go and see if our hives have been stolen and, if they haven’t, lift the lids and see if the bees have eaten all their fondant yet. We might even clean the floors, if we’re wise enough to have mesh that slides out. Because, though our bees are usually good at clearing away the dear little corpses, at this time of year there’s a shortage of labour. And, as often as not, those dear little corpses will be stuck to the floor in a delicious ooze of suppurating candy, which would make them tricky enough to shift even if the dear departed hadn’t got their lovely legs woven through the mesh as if on purpose. Scraping them off is a useful task, both hygienically and morally.
But, apart from those minor chores, we can sit back and take languid pride in our achievements. First, because idleness and the appearance of idleness are two very different things and, by now, we should have found the knack of surrounding ourselves with serious-looking books, leaving copies of syllabi lying about as if we planned to read them, and cluttering front rooms and airing cupboards with all the vital, mysterious and busy-looking paraphernalia of the industrious beekeeper. Second, because we’ve yet to make any serious mistakes so far this year, and that’s something to be celebrated, however briefly.
This year has been especially kind to the idle, on account of weather that’s made it impossible to step outdoors without both waterproofs and grim necessity, while remaining what the forecasters call mild. This has had two, more or less profound, effects. The first is that our bees, which are able to cunningly exploit fragments of sunshine too short to be visible to humans, have done some of their own foraging for a change. Whether bees feel guilt, or even a sense of decency, is open to debate, but it’s nice to think the possibility remains.
The second is that our bees have had more opportunity than usual to catch and foment each and every possible variety of pest and disease, thus preparing themselves for a proper bout of spring dwindling. It’s sad, but it does happen. And so the wise beekeeper, not being of a chicken-counting or fate-tempting turn of mind, will not see the need to buy and hammer up dozens of frames on the off-chance they’ll still have colonies to shake or Bailey change. It may be different in March, or August, or whenever the frisky Spring turns up, but now it’s all tea and biscuits and the idle contemplation of the NBUs merry warnings of Imminent Death, and that’s exactly as it should be.
Sadly, the bees aren’t necessarily so idle. In many ways, that’s a good thing, for a good part of the human-bee relationship relies on the bees doing most of the work. But it does mean that if we’re not worrying about disease, we’re worrying about management, as healthy bees can be as much of a wholesale nuisance as sick ones. Those with calendars will see that they’ll have been building up for about six weeks now, and if we’ve obeyed the guidance and have them down on single-brood, with shook swarms or Bailey changes planned for some indefinable point perhaps towards the end of March, it might be useful to add to our idle contemplations the cheery reminiscence that, only a couple of years ago, the first swarms pitched up in February.