2013 hives: to bee or not to bee
Irish beekeepers are afraid to open their hives after the prolonged cold spring, which they fear has led to significant losses.
It's been a devastating double whammy for bees, with a cool, wet and unproductive summer being followed by a long, cold winter that has drifted into the first weeks of spring.
And it's still unclear if there was enough fresh pollen gathered by workers from plants, including gorse and early flowering garden bulbs such as crocuses, during February.
It's this fresh pollen that stimulates queen bees to lay the eggs that will keep hives going for another year.
"It's been a very tough year and we fear there will be losses," Michael Gleeson, of the Federation of Irish Beekeepers' Associations, told the Sunday Independent.
Anxious beekeepers will have to wait for the temperature to rise to the mid-teens before they can see what damage has been done. That's because opening a hive now could chill the existing brood and kill the older winter bees.
Experienced beekeepers can gauge how much honey is left in a hive to keep the bees fed by lifting the hive – a practice known as 'hefting the hive'. If the hives feels too light they can supplement it with fondant – the same stuff that goes on the top of fancy cakes.
Many beekeepers have been calling into their local bakeries to buy supplies of the mixture of water and icing sugar which is then drip fed into the hive to augment their honey diet.
Even the humble but hardy dandelion has an important role to play in spring as a source of both nectar and pollen which provides bees with a much needed tonic when many other plants are still dormant.
Beekeeping in Ireland is at an all-time high, with 2,859 beekeepers affiliated to 56 associations.
According to Mr Gleeson, a recent beginners' course on beekeeping attracted more than 60 participants.
"It's never been more popular and the last few years have seen a dramatic upsurge in interest."
Beekeeping is very much linked with agriculture and farming.
"If you hear farmers worrying about fodder supplies, wet ground and the cold, you can be sure that the bees are also suffering," he said.
"On this date last year, March 29, I received a report of a swarm in South Kerry and the temperature was touching 21°C. It's a different story this year," Mr Gleeson added.
Globally, bees are in decline. Last week two giants of the chemical industry, Syngenta and Bayer, which make pesticides blamed by some for a sharp fall in bee populations around the world, proposed a plan to support bee health. The move was seen as an attempt to head off calls for a European Union ban on the products after the European Food Safety Authority reported that there is a theoretical risk to bee health from neonicotinoid pesticides.