Plain Talk Beekeeping: The Basics … and then some
Some typical spring Management Tasks
The spring season begins again – and again
Spring management during the winter
This is a true story. Just yesterday, it was one of those beautifully warm winter days. Of course, I took a walk to my dormant apiary where some few bees were flying — and robbing. Winter robbing activity is common, but that is a story for another time. I did simple weight tests on all colonies, and I looked at the litter that had accumulated both on the bottom board and on the ground in front of the hives. Happily, I did not find any outright surprises. One colony was long dead, but I was expecting that. It went into winter with a small cluster. Yes, I suppose I should have done something last fall, but hindsight is always keener.
While looking at one colony, I noticed a drone on the landing board that appeared to have recently died. As I was looking, a live, perfectly healthy drone flew away from the hive. I was caught unawares and did not have an opportunity to snap a photo. A drone departed from a wintering colony here in Northeast Ohio. I promise. All you have is my word.
Winter drones are a fascination for me. They are not supposed to be there, but in some hives, there they are. I’ve seen this before. I have no idea how many drones are there or which colonies still tolerate them. I dared not open that hive, so I took no action. There was no action to be taken. This, too, is a story for another time, but if I ever write it, it will be a short story for I know very little about colonies that allow some drones to winter.
My apiary visit was a casual visit and refreshing. The next spring season is on the horizon. I offer you the notion that the earliest spring management actually begins during winter months. The few observations that I made and the few minor changes that I made to my wintering colonies were made with an eye toward having the colonies as prepared as possible for the upcoming seasonal change. In a way, I was performing spring management during winter.
On my casual apiary walk, my management options in this northeastern Ohio climate were very limited. I wanted to help where I could, but I certainly did not want to cause any harm as I performed this late winter/early spring apiary visit.
Well, exactly how can you be helpful?
Okay, so you want to be helpful, but from what stance — yours or the bees? In a dramatic scenario, you don’t really have to do anything to prepare your colonies for spring. For a while the bees will manage just fine without your involvement. But, in unmanaged colonies, you should expect annual swarms, a significantly reduced honey crop, and ultimately, and later in the season, colony death due to mite predation. If this “let alone” method of beehive management does not appeal to you, consider performing the following springtime procedures.
- Give the colony space to grow during the upcoming months.
- As best you can, control diseases and pests.
- Provide supplemental foodstuffs when needed (both carbohydrate and protein).
- Requeen at least every two years. (Annual requeening is not a bad idea.)
- Keep your equipment maintained.
Some Variations on my list above:
By March, beekeepers in warm climates will be well beyond some of these early spring management events. Warm-climate beekeepers would have needed to have performed these procedures back in February — even January in some really balmy areas. If you’re one of those warm-climate beekeepers and haven’t done them as you read this, do the listed items, but eliminate reversing brood boxes. The queen is probably using two boxes already, or they have already begun preparations to swarm.
Give the colony some growing space
You can do this by removing the entrance reducer that you installed last fall to keep the mice out. Be sure your inner cover is “deep side up.” Finally, you can reverse deeps until the queen is freely laying in both bottom deeps.
From a recent article, an ABJ reader asked …
“Why did you write that the entrance reducer notch should be turned upward and not the seemingly more logical position of turning the opening notch downward?”
The notch turned up would give space for dead and dying bees to accumulate inside the colony on the bottom board. When the notch is turned down, dead winter bees can readily block the small opening — in theory — preventing live bees from exiting. But having said this, it is more important to have an entrance reducer in place than to fret about too much about the entrance reducer notch position.
Reversing deep supers in the spring
I have had numerous discussions with concerned beekeepers who are trying to do the right thing with this reversing recommendation. It’s actually simple. In late winter or early spring, on those occasional warm days, open your hive. If the brood nest and most of the bees are in the top deep only, reverse them. That is, put the full deep, with the brood nest, on the bottom board, and put the empty bottom deep on top of the hive. In this way, the colony can expand in its normal upward direction.
How often do you perform this reversing procedure? Once is usually enough, rarely twice. What if you discover that the queen is already using a small part of the bottom deep but is mainly using the top deep? Don’t bother them. Don’t change anything. Why should you be concerned about this procedure at all? Reversing deeps is thought to reduce swarming though I don’t know of any specific studies proving that it does.
There’s a chance that the recommendations of reversing the hive bodies and inner covers are marginal tasks assigned to beekeepers by other beekeepers. I sense that regularly controlling diseases and pests and requeening may go a lot further toward controlling swarming and producing the maximum honey crop. However, there is no harm done in performing these reversing procedures. Therefore, if you don’t perform the reversing procedure, don’t worry too much about it. There are plenty of other reasons for the colony to swarm even if you do the reversing procedure.
The seasonal inner cover
General recommendations suggest that you have the deeper side of the inner cover turned upward during warm months but reverse the position during cooler months. If you must make a single decision, leave the inner cover with the deep side up year-round. A crowded colony will put burr comb in the deep space within the inner cover, making it difficult to remove it. Reversing the position of the inner cover during winter months is supposed to help the winter cluster survive more efficiently by providing more clustering space on top of the frame top bars (though, again, I don’t know of any specific studies proving that it does.)
Spring (late winter) feeding
For you beekeepers in warm climates, feeding colonies in late March or April means you are probably feeding splits or swarms. If you’re feeding small colonies that did not winter well, something is wrong with that colony — but you already know that. In addition to feeding small warm-climate colonies, consider requeening these disadvantaged colonies, too.
For those of us in cooler climates, late winter/early spring feeding is not a bad idea. How much to feed? This is a simple question that’s difficult to answer. If a colony is really small and there is still some cold weather to endure, there’s an excellent chance that supplemental feeding will not save the colony, but there is no harm in trying. If the colony is in pretty good shape, feeding now might buy it enough time to get it into the spring months.
As I read my comments …
When manipulating colonies at near-marginal temperatures, it is very easy to unintentionally cause more harm than good. The bees will be flighty and will not respond well to smoke. Many bees that leave the hive will be challenged to get back into the hive and to the cluster. As I have said in previous articles, keep such inspections quick and decisive. For the new beekeeper, this will not be a good time to keep the colony open for an extended time.
If the colony is in good shape, feeding is primarily a stimulative additive that is supposed to inspire the colony to lunge into spring all pumped up and ready to go. (See my comments above on disease control and requeening.) No doubt, stimulative feeding of a good colony in the early spring does no harm, but again, I don’t know how much good it does. Finally, some colonies, small or large, will take syrup at dramatically different rates. So, back to the question of how much to feed and when to stop, that depends on both you and the colony — you and your bees will have to decide.
Feeding bees sugar is a time-honored procedure in beekeeping. There are many, many designs of “ideal” feeders. All designs of feeders have …