Hooray for spring! Let beekeepers everywhere rejoice! The sun is shining, and the trees are beginning to bud, it’s warming up and the bees are flying again!
How did your bees fare during the long cold winter? With diligence, and perhaps a little bit of luck–your hives came through the winter, and if you’re anything like me–the long winter months when there is little a beekeeper can do for his or her honeybee colonies are a seemingly endless trial in patience.
When the snow finally melts away, and those warm, sunny days of spring arrive–it can be difficult to resist the urge to get out there and do something with the bees. However, there are still a number of cool, rainy and unpleasant days to come–when little is available in the way of nectar. So, with the exception of feeding your bees–do not rush the season. You will know it’s time to begin your spring beekeeping chores when the dandelions begin to bloom.
Spring beekeeping chores
Before the dandelion bloom
When it’s still to cool to do much with your girls, there are still a few things you can do for your honeybee colonies to gear up for the season ahead.
Remove winter garb: This is a good time to take off any winter wrapping, packing and insulation, remove mouse guards and place your entrance reducers on the hives. To ensure gusty spring breezes don’t chill the brood keep entrances on the hives small. Rather than the commercial entrances, I simply use a wooden post that I cut to length-leaving half and inch to an inch open on either side of the bottom entrance. By keeping that entrance reducer centered, I provide better protection for the brood nest, which is typically situated on the center frames inside the hive.
Look for cluster location: Knowing where your bees are clustered inside the hive will help you determine whether or not they have enough remaining food stores, and if you need to feed them to help them make it through to the nectar bloom. When you open the hive, if the cluster is located deep inside the hive boxes and they still have frames of honey above them–then you can stave off feeding the bees for a while longer. However if they are right there at the top of the hive when you take off the inner cover–it is likely that they have eaten through their stores, and could face starvation if food is not made available to them.
Feed if necessary: If, in fact, your colony is short on honey stores, to prevent the bees from starving you can feed them sugar. Perhaps you used a candy board during the winter? At this time of year, you can use sugar-syrup at a 1:1 ratio (one part sugar for every one part water) and feed it to the bees is a boardman feeder. You should be aware though, that even with food available at the entrance of the hive–when it is cold or wet, the bees will not leave the cluster to go get the food you’ve provided to them in a boardman feeder. For this reason, many beekeepers make the food available to the colony by placing it directly above the cluster–some use a plastic tray feeder, others a plastic frame insert–personally, I just take the mason jar and the perforated lid from my boardman feeder and place it inverted over the hole in my innercovers. I place a third (empty)hive body on top of the inner cover, to protect the sugar syrup and the bees, and place the telescoping top cover on top of it all. This works fine if you have just a couple of hives, or a handful of them–as I do. Many large scale beekeepers use large pail feeders to save themselves having to make repeated trips to their apiaries to refill feeders on their hundreds of hives.
When the dandelions bloom
Once it’s warm enough for the dandelions to bloom, it’s warm enough to really dig into your hives.
Perform a full hive inspection – Assess the quality of the Queen–how old is she? Is she laying a uniform pattern? Is there a proper balance of eggs, larvae, and pupae? Is the worker to drone population in proportion? Look for bees occupying 12-15 frames, with brood in 6-10 of them (not every frame will be completely full–since the brood nest is spherical). Do they have at least 20 pounds of honey (the equivalent of 4 deep frames full), and at least 2-3 frames of pollen?
Test for mites – This is something that I strongly urge beekeepers to do. In the fight against the Varroa “destructor”, and to maintain healthy hives, it is crucially important to know what the level of infestation is inside your hive. Take a sample–there are a variety of methods (ie-alcohol wash, ether roll, powdered sugar roll. drone sampling, etc.)–count the mites, and then determine if that number is within your threshold tolerance. If the number exceeds your tolerance level–this is a good time of year to treat your hives, or to take some other form of action to decrease the mite loads in your hives.
- Rotate boxes and manipulate frames – Because the colony will have moved up through the hive during the winter, they may be situated in the upper hive body–leaving the lower one largely empty. When this happens, beekeepers often rotate the hive bodies, placing the colony back on the bottom, and situating the empty box above the nest, providing them plenty of space to rear more brood and store more honey.
- Spring cleaning – Scrape away burr comb, propolis build-up on frames or boxes, scrape your bottom boards, and clean the tray on your screened bottom board if you use one. This is a good time to remove combs that are 5 years old or more and replace them with new foundation or empty frames for your girls to build new combs in. Remove any broken equipment (frames, boxes, etc.).
Go forth and keep bees!
It’s a glorious feeling, standing in the golden sunshine and peeking into a hive of busy buzzing honeybees–but pulling frames apart before the weather is right can result in chilled brood, which can cause larvae mortality. It’s really crucial to not rush the season–wait for the dandelion bloom before digging into the hive too much. And then, once that sea of yellow blossoms has spread across your lawn or your neighbors’ lawn–give yourself free reign to get those spring beekeeping chores accomplished. Revel in the sunshine, and enjoy your bees!
Did I miss anything? Feel free to share by leaving a comment below!