5. Spring Management
If you're just starting out with bees, your springtime job will be relatively simple. But if you have overwintered colonies, you'll be as busy with your bees as the bees are busy themselves. You and your bees will be getting ready for the big honey flow, your harvest season. You'll add bees to weak colonies, maybe unite weak colonies, introduce new queens, take care of swarms, do your spring feeding and other chores. We’ll take a look at those jobs later. First, let's see what the new beekeeper will have to do.
Examining Overwintered Colonies
You should examine your live, overwintered colonies on a bright, warm, early spring day when the bees are flying and preferably when there is a light honey flow. The temperature should be near 70°. Open
and examine the hive as described earlier. This examination should take only a few minutes in order to avoid chilling the brood. What are you going to look for?
Here's a check list:
(I) Does the colony have a good queen? Thai is, are there eggs and brood of all stages?
(2) Does the colony have enough stores? In general, you should find the equivalent of about 15 to 20 pounds of honey (three to four frames) if the colony is strong. If you can see sealed honey along the top of the frame, you can usually figure that the colony has enough for about 10 days.
(3) Are there enough bees to care for the brood nest? A strong colony will cover three to four frames and there should be brood on at least three frames.
(4) Is disease present? Check all dead and weak colonies. Never use equipment from diseased colonies until it is sterilized.
If you have strong colonies when you first examine your hives, they probably will not need attention until the brood nest begins to get crowded.
If you've been keeping bees all winter, your first spring job will be some housecleaning. Once the weather warms up, take a look at the entrances to all hives. If you don't see any bees flying, knock at the front
door and wait for an answer. If no-one comes out, open the hive. If the bees are dead, close the hive and block off the entrance. Then as soon as possible get rid of the dead bees. You can bury them, but do it away from your apiary. Examine the frames for disease or have an experienced beekeeper or a bee inspector check them. Store the supers where bees can't get to them. Frames from diseased colonies should be burned. Clean all the entrances where you find bees flying. If possible, clean off the bottom boards. Remove any dead bees, bits of wax, and dirt.
One of your first jobs as a new beekeeper will be to add a super to your hive. We can't tell you exactly when to do this, but we can give you a general idea. Your merit badge counselor can advise you more
specifically. In general, don't add a super until the colony occupies just about all the first story of your hive and has became crowded enough to welcome more room. Don't let that first story get too crowded though. Usually a super is added when extensions of the upper cells of the frames are noticed.
Other things to check:
Queen performance, disease, stores (make sure they're ample), swarming indications. The entrance should be small at first and enlarged as the weather gets warmer. After spring, you manage and manipulate your bees as you would any established colony.
Have you examined all your colonies? If you have, chances are you ran into at least one of the conditions iIIustrated here, “you did, the instructions below will help you manipulate your hives. Of course, there
Will be other conditions in some apiaries In that case, consult your merit badge counselor. Don't attempt any manipulations unless your colonies are disease free.
Uniting / Combining Colonies
Making one colony out of two is fairly easy if you use the newspaper method. It works like this. Smoke the bees in the stronger colony (always add the weak colony to the stronger one.) Remove the cover and inner cover exposing the frames. Next, cover the frames with one sheet of newspaper and put on the weak colony minus the bottom board. Don't leave any openings. This forces your bees to gnaw through the paper and unite with the stronger colony. Because this takes a while there will be little or no fighting between the two colonies. Punch a small hole (use a pencil point) in the paper only if it is hot or quite warm.
Adding package Bees
You can make weak colonies strong by adding queenless packages of bees before the honey flow. But how many bees do you add? Here's a fairly good yardstick: If there are about three frames of bees and a young queen in the weak colony, introduce a 3-pound package of bees. But if the colony has nearly eight frames of bees. 1 pound of queenless bees is enough. Before you add the new bees, cage the queen and leave her caged for a few days. This will keep the new bees from killing her. Next wet the package bees with sugar syrup and sprinkle syrup liberally over the frames of the weak colony. Shake the wet bees on top of the frames or into a space made by removing three of four frames. Lastly, replace the frames and cover the hive.
Clipping or Marking the Queen
By the time it's warm enough to start unpacking overwintered colonies, you can clip the queens. A light honey flow should be in progress. Clipping or Marking should only be done after the queen is mated. Of course, if you bought your queen from a breeder it will have been mated and will be laying. You can ask the breeder to clip or mark her for you. Beekeepers clip the wings of queens to make them easier to identify. This also keeps the Queen from leaving with a swarm. Then when the bees miss her, the swarm will return to the hive. When handling a queen bee, carefully pick her up by the wings with your thumb and forefinger. Don't pick her up by the abdomen. To do the clipping, transfer the queen to your left hand putting your thumb under her and your forefinger over her. She won't sting. Next using a pair of scissors clip off part of one pair of wings. Or you can clip just the large wing on one side. Some beekeepers clip the left wing one year and the right wing the next year so they can tell how old the queen is. If you are a beginner practice this dipping procedure with some drones first. When you think you can do it well practice with a few workers before clipping a queen. If clipped correctly, the queen will not be able to fly. However, if clipped too closely, the queen may appear damaged and be superseded.
The alternate method is Marking.
Marking queens is done following a color code agreed by all beekeepers to make them easy to find and track the breeding year they were introduced. If you do this, mark them with a small spot of paint or nail polish on the thorax - not the abdomen.
White for years that end in 1 or 6. Yellow is used when a year ends in 2 or 7. Red if a year ends with a 3 or 8. Green when 4 or 9 is the last digit. Blue if the year ends in a 5 or a 0.
Bees can starve. In fact starvation is one of the main causes of unprofitable beekeeping. Food is especially important in late spring and just before the major honey flow. Your bees need plenty of food to rear brood. Beekeepers feed sugar syrup rather than honey because it is cheaper .
We can also add pollen patties in early spring (available from bee suppliers or homemade) and feed pollen substitute – typically made from spent brewers yeast
To make syrup for spring feeding, mix one part of hot water and one part of granulated sugar by volume. Add the sugar to the water and keep stirring until the sugar is dissolved. You can put the syrup in a shallow pan cover it with cheesecloth to keep your bees from drowning, and put it in an empty super on top of the brood nest. Or you can put the syrup in a hive top feeder or honey pail and put the pail on top of the brood frames in an empty super. Some beekeepers use an entrance feeder to encourage brood rearing. Do your feeding in the evening to prevent robbing. Some apiarists feed dry sugar instead of syrup when the weather is still cold. When a colony is short of stores then simply scatter sugar on top of the inner cover. The block over the bee escape is removed. The bees soon go to the field bring in water, then make their own syrup.
Bees can be criminals…. we call them robbers. And if they ever stage a fully fledged robbery in your apiary you'll never forget it. Any bee can become a robber. The more loot bees can steal, the worse they get. They'll excite other bees and before you know it there will be a roaring battle under way that may last for days. There can be a robbery any time, but it usually takes place when no honey is coming in. The robbers generally overpower the guards of a weak colony and cart the food supply back to their hive. You can spot robbers quite easily. If you see bees flying around the hive corners or entrances with a quick, sneaky motion, suspect robbery. These robbers act as if they expect to be jumped at any time. They're shiny and sleek. Don't confuse them with bees at play. Young bees at play will fly around in front of a hive, but there's no fighting, no sneaking around, and the play soon stops. Fortunately, there are ways to prevent robbing. Here are a few: Keep all colonies strong. Only weak colonies are robbed.
Don’t leave honey or cappings exposed.
When honey is scarce, don't leave a hive open long.
Reduce the entrance of a weak colony so only one bee at a time can be let in by the bee guards.
Keep the hive cover bee-tight.
To stop robbing when you think it's starting, put a bunch of loose grass over the hive entrance. The hive guards will hide in the grass and take care of any robbers that try to come through.
The grass will dry out after the robbers are gone, and bees can then get out.
Overcrowded Brood Nest
If, soon after a hive is unpacked from it winter packing, you notice that the brood nest is bulging with honey, consider it a warning sign-the hive is getting overcrowded. If you don't provide more room, swarming preparations will result. You can give your overcrowded bees more room in different ways. If the colony has been wintered in a standard brood nest with a shallow hive body on top of it the queen usually starts laying in the shallow hive body come spring. When it gets overcrowded you simply reverse the two sections. You put the shallow hive body on the bottom board and the deep chamber on top of the shallow hive body. Add another super on top to provide space for bees and nectar storages. Suppose you wintered your bees in two standard hive bodies. You simply reverse the two hive bodies and add a super. Maybe you wintered your colony in a single standard brood nest. In that case, when it gets overcrowded you would simply add a hive body containing worker comb. You could put in frames of foundation, but
only if the bees are gathering nectar, as they will not draw out comb if no nectar is coming in.
Bees like to swarm. It's their way of dividing a colony. Part of a colony leaves to set up a new home. They leave enough bees behind to maintain the old or parent colony. Some breeds are more prone to swarming than others, BUT all bees will swarm if conditions are right. If you have only a few colonies and want to increase the number, you might welcome a swarm. But you'll have to know how to handle the swarm. Most beekeepers try to prevent swarming and divide their colonies themselves. To prevent swarming you must know how to recognize swarming preparations. If a colony has been busy but suddenly quits working and you see bees hanging around the hive, the colony may be getting ready to swarm. If you find a lot of queen cells ready to be sealed you can expect a swarm 1 or 2 days after the first cell is sealed. Eliminating the causes of swarming, is of course how you prevent bees from swarming. These are the main causes:
Overcrowding; lack of ventilation in the hive: lack of comb for brood rearing and for storing nectar and honey; presence of old queens; confinement of bees to the hive because of weather during normal swarming period; too much heat from the sun; instinct
Of course you can't do very much about a bee's instinct to swarm. This instinct is stronger in some bee races and strains than in others. Thus the bee breeder can influence this instinct some. Clipping a queen helps prevent a swarm from going too far from the apiary. If there is a lack of ventilation (usually because of hot humid weather) you might put 1 inch blocks between the bottom board and the hive at the corners. Make sure your bees have plenty of room for brood rearing and for ripening and storing their crop. If the drones get numerous, destroy the drone comb and replace it with worker comb. Leave only a few drones. Keeping young queens and providing ample comb space help prevent swarming. Toward the end of the period before the main honey flow, thousands of worker bees will emerge. They're rather clumsy at first getting in the way of others, and often shutting off air to some parts of the hive. This naturally results in swarming preparations. To keep the bees from swarming you might try this: Put all or almost all of the sealed brood in the lower brood chamber along with the Queen, destroy all queen cells and put a queen excluder over the chamber. On top of the excluder put one or two supers of empty frames, then put on the second brood chamber holding the unsealed brood. Destroy any Queen cells that have been started. As the brood emerges in the upper chamber, it will be replaced with honey. By destroying queen cells you may also end up queenless, so not a perfect method.
There are other methods of swarm prevention. Look up “checker boarding” and discuss this with you counselor and use the method that will work best for you.
Hiving a Swarm
Despite all these swarm prevention practices, your bees might still swarm or you may see a swarm from another source. The swarm probably will cluster on some nearby object. Most swarms will be very gentle and pose no risk to the beekeeper, but keep your protection equipment at hand in case. The easiest way to keep a swarm in a new hive is to give them a frame of brood. So use a swarm capture box or an empty hive with one frame of brood from a strong hive and foundation or frames of empty comb.
Next, collect the swarm and hive it in the new hive body. If your bees cluster on a bush or tree limb, you can shake them into a basket or other container and take them back to the hive. You may be able to cut off the branch containing the cluster. If you can't shake the object or cut it off, you can brush the bees into your container. At the hive, shake the bees onto the alighting board. The bees will usually crawl right in. Keep your smoker handy though. You may have to smoke or brush them in. If the queen isn't with them, your bees will start running out of the hive again looking for her. When that happens, look for the queen. She may be at the original clustering place or somewhere around the hive attended by a small group of bees. If you see her, catch her in a queen clip, and leave her in the clip in the center of the brood for few days. As a precaution, some beekeepers place an excluder between the bottom board and the bottom super to prevent the queen from leaving the hive after the swarm has settled on the frames. The field bees in the old brood nest will go into the field. When they return they'll go to the former location of their hive. There, of course, they'll find the new hive and join the swarm. This should weaken the parent colony enough to prevent any more swarming. If the nights are cool, make sure the colony doesn't gel chilled.
Artificial Increase of Colonies
When to increase you colonies will depend on two things: whether your main object is to produce a crop of honey or whether your sole object is to increase the number of colonies. If you're after honey, you
should not increase your colonies at the height of a honey flow Start in the spring. But don't overdo it. And don't take away from a colony unless it can well spare the bees and frames. There are a number of
ways to increase colonies. Here are two.
Prepare a new hive, then fill it with frames containing brood and bees (not the Queens) taken from several colonies. Introduce a new, fertile queen. Stuff the entrance tightly with green grass so the bees
cannot leave.. The grass will wilt in a few days and allow the bees to leave the hive. Don't forget to put frames filled with foundation in the hives from which you look the brood frames and bees. Some beekeepers take the Queen of a colony and half of the sealed and unsealed brood and bees and put them in a brood chamber on a bottom board of a new stand. Plenty of room and honey are given until
the first honey flow. The other half of the original colony is given a new Queen. It's also given room and honey the same as the new colony. If you want to increase your colonies, ask your counselor for advice on what to do.
Reasons for doing a split:
- To get more hives.
- To requeen.
- To get more production.
- To get less production (for people who don't want too many hives or too many bees).
- To raise queens.
- To prevent swarms.
As soon as commercial queens are available, or as soon as drones are flying depending on if you want to buy or raise queens you CAN do a split. It depends again on what you want for an outcome.
There are an infinite variety of methods for doing a split. Many of these are because of the desired outcome (swarm prevention, maximizing yields, maximizing bees etc.) Some of the variations are also due to buying queens or letting the bees raise queens.
The simple version is to make sure you have some eggs in each of the deeps and put them facing toward the old location. In other words put a bottom board on the left facing the left side of the hive and one on the right facing the right side of the hive and put one deep on each and maybe an empty deep on top of that. Put the tops on and walk away.There are an infinite number of variations of this.
You have to make sure that both of the resulting colonies have a queen or the resources to make one (eggs or larvae that just hatched from the egg, drones flying, pollen and honey, plenty of nurse bees).
You have to make sure that both of the resulting colonies get an adequate supply of honey and pollen to feed the brood and themselves.
You have to make sure that you account for drift back to the original site and insure that both resulting colonies have enough population of bees to care for the brood and the hive they have.
You need to respect the natural structure of the brood nest. In other words, brood combs belong together. Drone brood goes on the outside edge of the brood and pollen and honey go outside that.
The old adage is that you can try to raise more bees or more honey. If you want both, then you can try to maximize honey in the old location and bees in the new split. Otherwise most splits are either a small nuc made up from just enough to get it started, or an even split.
Kinds of splits
An even split. You take half of everything and divide it up. Face both of new hives at the sides of the old hive so the returning bees aren't sure which one to come back to. In a week or so, swap places to equalize the drift to the one with the queen.A walk away split. You take a frame of eggs, two frames of emerging brood and two frames of pollen and honey and put them in a 5 frame nuc, shake in some extra nurse bees (making sure you don't get the queen), put the lid on and walk away. Come back in four weeks and see if the queen is laying.
A typical split. Same as above, but you either introduce a queen you bought or walk away and let them raise their new queen. If you introduce a queen they will be three weeks ahead of the hive that is raising their own, so you will have to put them in a larger box than a nuc to start with.
Swarm control split. Ideally you want to prevent swarming and not have to split. But if there are queen cells I usually put every frame with any queen cells in its own nuc with a frame of honey and let them rear a queen. This usually relieves the pressure to swarm and gives me very nice queens. But even better, put the old queen in a nuc with a frame of brood and a frame of honey and leave one frame with queen cells at the old hive to simulate a swarm. Many bees are now gone and so is the old queen. Some people do the other kinds of splits (even walk away etc.) in order to prevent swarming. I think it's better to just keep the brood nest open.
A cut down split.
Concepts of a cut down: The concepts of a cut down are that you free up bees to forage because they have no brood to care for, and you crowd the bees up into the supers to maximize them drawing comb and foraging. This is especially useful for comb honey production and more so for cassette comb honey production, but will produce more honey regardless of the kind of honey you wish to produce.
This is very timing critical. It should be done shortly before the main honey flow. The purpose is to maximize the foraging population while minimizing swarming and crowding the bees into the supers.. There are variations on this, but basically the idea is to put almost all the open brood, honey and pollen and the queen in a new hive while leaving all the capped brood, some of the honey and a frame of eggs with the old hive with less brood boxes and more supers. The new hive won't swarm because it doesn't have a workforce (which all returns to the old hive). The old hive won't swarm because it doesn't have a queen or any open brood. It will take at least six weeks or more for them to raise a queen and get a decent brood nest going. Meantime, you still get a lot of production (probably a lot MORE production) from the old hive because they are not busy caring for brood. You get the old hive requeened and you get a split. Another variation is to leave the queen with the old hive and take ALL the open brood out. They won't swarm right away because the open brood is gone.Confining the queen. Another variation on this is to just confine the queen two weeks before the flow so there is less brood to care for and free up nurse bees to forage. This also helps with control of the Varroa mite, as it skips a brood cycle or two. This is a good choice if you don't want more hives and you like the queen. You can put her in a regular cage or put her in a #5 hardware cloth push in cage to limit where she can lay eggs. They will eventually chew under the hardware cloth cage, but it should set her back for a while.
Cutdown Split / Combine. This is a way to get the same number of hives, new queens and a good crop. You set up two hives right next to each other (touching would be good). Two weeks before the main flow you remove all the open brood and most of the stores from both hives, and the queen from one hive, and put it in a hive at a different location (the same yard is fine, but a different place). Then you combine all the capped brood, the other queen, or a new queen (caged), or no queen and one frame with some eggs and open brood (so they will raise a new one) into one hive in the middle of the old locations so all the returning field bees come back to the one hive.