It seems that there were a number of sunny days when I was away and Tony reported by e-mail that the bees were out on cleansing flights on some days.
On my return in late February I noted that the bees were flying. On a warm day, with sun on the hive I cautiously opened the hive and checked the box on the crown-board with the fondant in. There was a minor disaster. A beekeeping friend had suggested that I put cling-film over the fondant to prevent it from drying out. As there had been sun on the hive the fondant had 'sweated and there were some dead bees and mould in the box caught up in the cling-film. I quickly removed the box and contents, cleaned it out and returned it to the hive with a small amount of fondant minus cling-film.
This week the weather got milder and the bees were flying in the sunshine. I observed at the entrance for a while but there was no sign of pollen being brought in although there are now some spring flowers in bloom: crocus, primroses (although mine have been in flower all winter) snowdrops, euphorbia and most importantly the wild plum is a cloud of white blossom.
I decided to have a very quick look inside the brood-box so kitted up and gave the hive a light smoke. My objectives were to see how much honey stores remained and to see if I could replace the last of the dirty old wax and frames that the colony came on last May. I want to replace these frames with new full size ones before the queen starts laying again - I could not wean her off these frames last season. The good news is that the bees had started to draw out the wax on those new frames that I had put in last year and that the remaining old frames are full of honey-stores. All this was judged with a tea-towel over the frames in order to retain the heat and only looking at the top few inches of the old frames. I did not look for the queen or check if she has started laying but I would expect to see the workers taking pollen in if there were larvae to feed. My plan now is too keep observing the outside of the hive and not do a full inspection until the currant is in flower (as is traditional). I may put the varroa board in and estimate the infestation level but generally this is not the time to chill the colony, or introduce chemicals when the 'winter bees' are coming to the end of their lives and do not need extra stress.
7th March up-date
What a difference a week makes. The bees were very active yesterday and are now bringing in a range of pollen: creamy buff, brown and bright yellow so they obviously have a diverse local source. I decided to put the varroa board in for a week and see what the situation is with mite infestation. today I removed the mouseguard and put in the entrance block with a small hole. The bees are active enough to repel any mice, the guard knocks off some pollen so removing it means more pollen gets into storage. I wonder if this means that the queen has started laying? The frogs have come out of hibernation and are croaking and mating in the pond and the birds are starting to build their nests so it is definitely the start of the breeding season.
I have weather-proofed the outside of hive 2 with Danish oil and swapped over the legs onto hive 1 so that I can mend the fox damage on the landing board and give it another proofing coat.
I have completely emptied the front garden of plants, dug it over, added well rotted compost and planted a bee-friendly border which will provide pollen and nectar throughout the foraging year. Plants include: achillea, rosemary, oriental poppy, agastache, lavender, chives, oregano, aster, hellenium, purple sage, catnip, geranium and crocus. I have had to 'fortify' it against my enemies the local foxes who have dug it up several times and broken some of the new plants.