Spring is the busiest time of the year for the beekeeper. Bee populations develop rapidly and changes happen very quickly in the beehive. It is a challenge for the beekeeper to stay ahead — to anticipate, not merely react. We often have to make decisions based on relatively little information. It is probably the toughest management season during the year. Timing is everything.
Arbitrarily, we divide spring into early, mid and late spring periods. Exact timing of these periods depends upon location and seasonal variability. All bee colonies in the apiary are not at the same level of development unless equalized by the beekeeper.
In early spring, we clean up and remove deadout equipment from winter losses. We need to ensure that all colonies are healthy and rearing brood. In mid-spring, the management emphasis shifts to keeping colonies intact and colony populations advancing by skillfully using swarm prevention management, and eventually swarm control, after colonies start queen cells.
The last aspect of the busy spring season is supering colonies for the nectar flow, done in concert with swarm control. Our goal is to ensure colonies have a large, intact population to fill the honey supers — assuming we are counting on honey harvest as a measure of success.
In this Basics I will discuss the early spring — swarming will be covered beginning next month.
At some point in January or February (in northern states), the winter weather will ease for at least a brief period. There may still be snow and ice and colder nighttime temperatures in the forecast, and more storms to come. But at least briefly the temperature at the bee entrance may warm to 50°F (10°C) and bees will appear at the entrance to take cleansing flights. During such a spell it is important for some bees to leave their hive to void wastes. Some may not make it back to their hive. Spotted snow and dead bees should not be cause for concern.
A respite from winter is a good time for a midwinter inspection. The inspection should be brief, mainly to check for adequate winter stores and to confirm that the bees are expanding their brood area. Honey bees monitor increasing day length and instinctively begin rearing more brood in January/February, initially using stores from last fall.
Do not disrupt the brood cluster or lift brood frames outside the box. On cold days, simply removing a brood frame and putting it in backwards might result in brood chilling and unnecessary bee death. The primary reason for the midwinter inspection is to determine if surviving colonies have adequate stores and to determine if there has been winter-kill. Experienced beekeepers estimate the amount of honey stores by hefting the back of the colony.
If you discover that colonies are short of honey stores, you can transfer frames of honey from colonies that have more than they need or use frames of honey stored for just such emergencies.
Some beekeepers prefer to feed dry sugar or sugar candy to colonies deemed in danger of starvation. It is not recommended to feed liquid sugar syrup in early spring as this will add to the moisture stress of the colony. Colonies generally do not die from low temperatures, but cold temperatures combined with a small bee population put colonies at risk. Mark those colonies judged to be light on stores as priority colonies for further spring attention.
Closely examine colonies that fail to survive the winter to attempt to determine why they died. Dead hives have tales to tell! Did they starve? Did they have American foulbrood (AFB) disease? Was the population too small? Do you see signs of PMS (Parasitic Mite Syndrome)? Look for water staining indicating excessive moisture condensation. Each of these will have a different appearance.
If the honey stores are gone (or too far from the cluster) and the bees died while clustered, you might conclude the colony died from starvation. A complication in this diagnosis is perhaps honey stores have been robbed before you looked into the colony. There may still be some adult bees in such colonies and the presence of robbing bees can fool even the veteran beekeeper. A telltale clue of robbing is whether there is evidence of torn wax cappings on former honey frames. If there are honey stores with a small dead cluster, the loss was probably due to too small a population.
The most important reason for checking winter-kill deadouts is to be sure colonies that died did not have AFB. If you find a small cluster of bees not covering the brood or entirely off the brood area, check brood remains carefully for AFB symptoms of sunken, perforated cappings and caramel-colored gooey remains of brood there may be scale of fully dehydrated larvae. Since we see too little foulbrood, get someone with more experience to help confirm if you suspect AFB.
It is best to not leave equipment from winter-kills exposed to other colonies. Close deadouts and remove the equipment to a bee-proof storage area. Transfer frames that contain honey or pollen to living colonies only if you are certain there is no disease. It is usually not necessary to destroy drawn combs if there is no AFB. Drawn comb is a valuable asset.
On a nice, early spring day, when bees are actively flying, clean the bottom board/screen of the hive. There will be lots of discarded wax cappings, hive debris and maybe accumulated dead bodies that the bees have not yet removed. White granules may be crystallized honey the bees are discarding. Simply scrape or brush the bottom and replace the boxes. Tip the hive forward so rain water does not run inside. Cleaning the bottom board will save the house-cleaning bees considerable labor.
You need to decide when to remove winter wrapping (if you used any). Black tar paper is there to warm the colony (it has virtually no insulation value). You want it to capture sun rays and heat the hive interior. Likewise top insulation is designed so water vapor escaping from the clustered bees does not condense on the top coverings and rain water back down onto the bees. Generally early removal can negate your overwintering efforts.
One other chore to consider is to begin apiary record-keeping with this initial inspection. You do not need to keep extensive records — remember KISS (keep it simple, stupid). For starters, record date, what you found (generally or for each colony inspected), and what you did. Keep general apiary records and specific records for colonies that require follow-up. Highlight colonies that will require specific management, such as colonies light on stores or suspected to have a queen problem. Indicate management, such as colonies supered or those for which a sample was taken for disease analysis.
If you desire, colony records can be more extensive. There are manual aids as well as record systems for your cell phone or computer. After a couple of seasons, apiary records, even simple ones, will improve your beekeeping experience by providing an instructive comparison of different seasons.
Watching the entrance
Watching bees at the colony entrance can reveal quite a lot about the colony. Bees in the spring need pollen to raise larvae, so pollen foragers should be evident. The pollen will most likely range in color from light to dark, with one color sometimes predominating, reflecting one major pollen source. We don’t know how but we know the bees are seeking to maximize their dietary choices.
There should be lots of bees active at the entrance on warm, sunny days. Some young bees will be performing orientation flights, learning the landmarks. Others will be functioning as guards, inspecting each incoming bee. Foragers will be the most numerous bees seen at the entrance as they fly directly from the entrance and disappear quickly inside when they return with their collected bounty. Some foragers may be water collectors. Look also at what the bees carry out of the hive, like dead bees, chalkbrood mummies or mouse debris.
The bees will not necessarily use the entrance provided if alternatives are available. Holes in the corners of the boxes, holes drilled for added ventilation, or areas not ….