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Spring Beekeeping: Apiary Tasks for a New Season
Spring is a Busy Time in the Bee Yard
Beekeepers get eager to get out in the bee yard at the first signs of spring, anxious to find out how our colonies of bees made out over the winter. For new beekeepers, it can be tricky to know what to do - and when, and what to look for - as you go into your hives for that first spring beekeeping inspection.
Now, if you ask a question to any 10 beekeepers, you're going to get 11 answers - beekeeping is an art, as much as a science, and there can be passionate differences of opinion! Not only that, the advice you get will depend in large part on your climate and local conditions, so it's important that you know up front that the context here is eastern Canada and the New England states.
The timing of tasks may change with the climate, and the details may vary according to what regulations are in your specific area, but what I hope to give to new beekeepers here is a general sense of the spring management tasks that go along with keeping bees on a small-business or hobbyist level.
Watch and Learn! - Different Beekeepers have slightly different Spring Inspection routines.
Different beekeepers in different locations and climates will each have a slightly different routine - not to mention, all those beekeepers who have less snow on the ground in early spring (late February or early March through early April, say) than I usually have to deal with for the first inspection of the season... but the general principles are more or less the same, as these videos from other beekeepers will show.
After all, we are all concerned primarily with "hive health" above all, at this time of year even more than later in the season.
You want to find out what's alive in terms of each hive, see if the colonies need to have a bit more insulation to protect them from the up-and-down temperatures at this time of year, and especially make sure they have lots of feed to get them through until more plants are blooming and the bees can get out to forage. With any luck, your queens will be busy laying eggs, so there will be lots of young'uns looking to be fed!
Here's How I Do It... - On Snowshoes, If Necessary!
A Beekeeper's To-Do List - Early Spring Hive Check Chores
- Check for dead bees and signs of Nosema around the hives.
- Check for signs of life in each colony, and close up any dead-out hives.
- Feed the colony!
- When weather permits, open the boxes to inspect for signs of foulbrood, a failing or absent queen, and other hive health problems.
- Treat and/or requeen as appropriate.
- Plan to increase the number of hives you run, by installing a nucleus colony (nuc) or package of bees, or by making splits of your own strongest colonies - but that's a topic for another day!
Exterior Hive Inspection
First Step in the Spring Beekeeping Routine
It's normal to see a few dead bees on the ground around the hive - especially if there's still snow on the ground, as they show up very clearly - and there will almost certainly be a fair number of dead ones at the entrance of the hive and just inside, on the floor. Honeybees gradually die off through the winter and into the early spring, so this is to be expected, but we hope not to see a whole lot of them!
It is also very normal to see at least a little bit of brown feces ("poop") on the hive and on any remaining snow on the ground, as "the girls" will have been out on the occasional cleansing flight on fine days, but won't yet have gone very far. If there's more than just a small amount of the brown spotting, however, that's a warning sign that the colony may be struggling with a Nosema infection.
Signs of Life?
Unwrap and look inside the hive - but wait for a warm day!
If the weather is about 10°C (50°F) with no wind, you can peek in the top of the hive to check for live bees.
Unwrap the hives, if you wrapped them for overwintering, and remove mouse-guards from entrances. Remove the outer and inner cover, and look down in to see if you can see the cluster. If you can't see any bees, put your ear down and listen for them - there may be a small cluster down in the very centre of the super, where you can't see it.
What you're trying to determine here is whether there's life in the hive.
Dead-outs should be closed up securely and/or removed from the bee yard, so that any remaining stores can't be robbed out by other colonies, in case any disease is present in the dead hive. Colonies that are noticeably down in numbers from when you put them away in the fall, or where the bees are stumbling about slowly, may be on the verge of starving, and should in any case be fed to get them through before forage is available.
Do you see a lot of bodies head-down in the honeycomb?
If you open a hive in spring and find a lot of dead bees back-end-up and head-down in the honeycomb cells, that's a sure sign that they starved at some point during the winter - most likely not long before you checked on the hive. Learn from this, to be generous with the amount of honey you leave in the hive for the bees' use!
Spring Feeding of Honeybees
More hives will die out due to starvation in early spring than from any other cause, we suspect. Certainly, a colony that is fairly strong in mid-March can be dead by month's end, as the occasional warm day will stimulate the bees to move out of their cluster, then sudden drops in temperature mean they have to consume extra food to generate heat to survive.
To help honeybees get through the end of winter until they can forage, and to start to stimulate brood production, there are two kinds of feed we can give - stored honey or sugar syrup, and pollen or pollen substitute. Both are recommended, if you live in a climate where spring feeding is needed.
The most convenient way to feed pollen substitute that I've found, since powders can be messy if there's the slightest breeze, is to mix with a little syrup and set a flat patty of it on the top of the frames under the inner cover. Or you can get the patties pre-made - I've used Mann Lake's Bee-Pro patty more than once, when pressed for time.
If you have stored away excess frames of capped honey from last season, this can be fed back to the bees. In my opinion, assuming the honey came from a healthy colony, this is the best possible feed for the bees. Unfortunately, we don't often have extra honey to give, so must rely on making up a sugar syrup to get the bees through.
For spring feeding of honeybees, give a sugar syrup that's one part sugar to one part water (by weight) is recommended, though I tend to go more towards 2:1 (more sugar, less water) with all the moisture we get here in Atlantic Canada in springtime.
To prepare the sugar syrup, heat the water to boiling, reduce heat, stir in the sugar until dissolved - being careful not to let the mixture boil again once the sugar has been added. If you are going to medicate as a preventative for Nosema disease, be sure to cool the syrup before adding the medication (Fumagilin-B) according to package directions.
When the weather is warm enough - at least 14°C (about 60°F) with no wind - you can do the first real inspection inside the hives. Check the frames for signs of foulbrood, a poor or missing queen, and other hive health problems.
If you see signs of foulbrood disease in the colony, mark the hive and close it up so no bees from other colonies get in and spread the infection.
Regulations will vary from one jurisdiction to another, so check with your local Agriculture department about what the law is for you.
In my jurisdiction, foulbrood-infected colonies and equipment must be destroyed (burned) for the health of our honeybee populations as a whole - and, heartbreaking as it is, I have done this myself. As a result, I'm glad to say my bees have been completely free of foulbrood for a number of years now. Although it's awfully hard to bring oneself to kill bees and burn expensive woodenware, there's no percentage in carrying on with an infected colony and risking the rest of your hives, not to mention the local beekeeping industry as a whole.
Do sterilize your hive tool in the fire of your smoker or using a small propane torch, before moving from one hive to the next.
Handle the frames gently, but do work as quickly as possible to keep the bees outside for as short a time as possible - and set the inner cover back over the hive when you're not lifting out or replacing a frame, to keep the bees and brood from getting chilled. As the old beekeeper's saying has it, "It takes heat to make honeybees."
Guide to Beekeeping
If you're new to beekeeping and would like to pick up one good clear guide to help you stay on track while you learn, Kim Flottum's book is a good choice. Whatever book you choose, make sure it is fairly recent - say, updated within the past few years at most - as the art and science of apiculture is always changing, and best practices tend to evolve a bit over time.
Spot the Queen Bee
You will also want to make sure that there is a live queen in each hive, and at least the beginnings of brood production.
It is great if you actually see the queen alive and well in the hive, but it's important not to let the bees get chilled by keeping the hive open for too long this early in the season. Spring weather feels good to us, but it is not the kind of heat that bees prefer! So the presence of fresh eggs in the cells, and hopefully eggs that have been placed in a good solid laying pattern in adjacent cells with very few gaps between them, will be taken as evidence enough for now that the colony is queen-right.
A spotty laying pattern can be an indicator of a failing queen, if there's been no shortage of pollen to stimulate brood laying, so you may need to consider putting in an order for a replacement queen for any colonies in doubt. Any queens more than a couple years old should also be replaced if you have not already done so.
The Queen is longer in the abdomen than the Worker Bees, and often surrounded by her attendant bees.
Here she is, circled in red in this smaller version of the photograph.
Queens can be notoriously difficult to spot, especially if there are plenty of bees on the frame along with her. Quite often the workers will cluster around and on top of the Queen to protect her, and she can walk surprisingly quickly to duck around to the other side of the frame.
The trick is to let your eye just drift over the frame of bees and look for a subtle change in the pattern of bees working the honeycomb, rather than looking for one particular bee in the crowd.
Practice makes it easier!