Week Four: Spring Management

On to Week Five

Wheatfield with Crows, 1890, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Week One

Week Two

Week Three

Spring Management

It is necessary to state the caveat to seasonal management: what you do in one season affects colony development in all the others! This is why you read so frequently that “spring management starts the summer before” and soforth. What does change from season to season is the intensity of the management…or perhaps better stated, the stakes are higher/different.

In spring management, we are assessing whether the colonies survived the winter, and if they did, in what shape. IF honey is our goal, we are thinking ahead to the all-important date that we expect to be the beginning of the main nectar flow. That date, tattooed onto every beekeeper’s heart, varies from biozone to biozone. And from year to year.

The bees come out of winter with brood in the hive. The colony, sensing the lengthening of days after midwinter, will have slowly been increasing the amount of brood. Left with stores of honey and pollen in the fall, and in my case with a sugar brick on the top bars to prevent starvation (and which serves as a handy check for the beekeeper…on warmish days I can pop the top, and observe the sugar brick…how much have the bees eaten, and how many bees are on the brick? these are all potent indicators of the health and size of the colony), colonies generally arrive at January/February in good condition, but can quickly run through stores as brood rearing ramps up.

It is not uncommon for an overwintered colony, otherwise healthy and viable, to starve in March. Why? Because it is very difficult to offer meaningful supplemental feeding before overnight temperatures rise above 10C/50F. The bees will literally starve themselves attempting to raise the spring brood: the winter bees are aging and cannot expect to meet the spring nectar flows in effective numbers. They know they have to raise a new generation of foragers…and every forager is 43 days = 6 weeks from the egg (or to put it another way, foragers learn to forage when they are three week old bees).

In my locale, the first big nectar flow is the Oregon/Big Leaf Maple bloom, usually in mid to late April. To field a great forager force for maple, new bees have to be started in February till very early March. Because brood rearing is not likely at its peak that early, and because that forager population is not going to have time to build to max force, we often fail to capitalize on that big nectar flow…it really just helps the hives build toward the critical June blackberry flow. To hit the June flow with max forager force, bees must be in peak new bee production mode in April.

Once nights are reliably 10C or above, you can begin syrup feeding. Before that time, syrup feeds cannot be effectively cured and can cause overwhelming condensation in the hive. And wet, cold bees are dead bees.

Remedy…if you are feeding syrup when the nights are still cold, keep insulation on over the feeder and cluster. This keeps the inner cover warm enough that condensation does not (we hope) form there and drip down onto bees. Condensation on the side walls of the hive is not usually a problem for the bees.

In our locale we have a conundrum! Days might be averaging 10C, but nights are often well under 10C far into April. So we have to consider our goals in deciding how and what to feed at this time of year. Because I am pushing colonies early to max brood production to fuel my own apiary goals (honey, queen breeding), I will put syrup in the feeders when I unwrap in late March/early April but continue to leave some sugar on the top bars as added insurance until I am certain the bees are taking the syrup. Note: many beekeepers offer saved frames of honey to the bees in spring, but I am not set up to do that.

At any time you can add a protein/pollen patty (and a fresh sugar brick if needed). These feeds will enable the bees to support the spring brood, and to increase their rate of raising new brood. I start adding a bit of pollen sub in February. They don’t usually touch it till March/April but it is a bit o’ insurance in case their pollen stores are low.

Feeding both carbs and protein offers one huge advantage to the honey-focused beekeeper (building a maximum sized forager force to meet the dominant nectar flow), and one huge disadvantage: big, booming hives are programmed to swarm in the spring.

Swarms are wondrous things. And they are the way bees reproduce. But as it rises into the air, your swarm takes half the bees in your hive, your productive queen, and a substantial store of honey in all those little bee bellies (they fill themselves to bursting before taking off). Now your colony is queenless, although it will have ripe queen cells left behind to emerge, and half your older, forager age bees are gone.  Eek! Even supposing one of those ripe queen cells emerges successfully, and runs the gauntlet of “new queen risks” (will they all kill each other in their bid for ascendancy? will she find drones to mate with? be damaged in the process of mating? be eaten by a bird on her mating flight(s)? will she find her way home? and be as productive as her mother?), it will be a full month before our new queen begins to lay eggs. During that month, there will be no new bees coming along, and the hive population will stall, and fall.

This is a disaster if you are trying to build up a honey hive. You will arrive at the nectar flow minus one month of bees = (1500 x 30 days) = 45000 bees that should have been laid. Remember, you will have lost almost as many as the bees age out. And, depending on the timing of the swarm, you already have, on day one of that month, vastly reduced numbers of the all important foragers.

Be careful! If your first attempt at queen rearing fails, there are not enough bees left by then to take the hive through another month with no new brood coming along. Be prepared to buy a queen at that point, or you risk losing the hive to either simple attrition and/or the development of laying workers.

(note: at peak season, a single queen hive is at most a sum of the lay rate per day (1500-2000 eggs in top queens) over the life span of a typical summer worker (6 weeks max). So an exceptional hive at peak population could be as much as 85000 bees, with even middling performers weighing in at 42000 bees. Most are likely 50000-60000 bees strong.)

So, much of spring management is the see-saw exercise of building the hives but applying effective swarm control.

Another excellent summary, from the University of Delaware.

A wonderful primer on equalizing hives, which can be part of your post-winter, anti-swarming toolkit.

To encourage the hive to stay home, you give the queen room to lay. Feeding itself can trigger swarming as the bees plug the brood nest full of syrup honey. And once the maples bloom…

Big Leaf Maple in bloom.
Big Leaf Maple in bloom.

…the nectar really starts flowing into strong hives. You will be watching your hive very closely, inspecting weekly (weekly, I repeat weekly!!!) to check that your queen has room to lay and that the bees are not putting up queen cells. A queen cell can form and the bees can swarm in SEVEN DAYS (they swarm soon after the queen cells are capped), so vigilance is required.

Or like me, you will risk yourself standing in helpless fury as a massive prime swarm collects 50′ up a cedar tree, ignores your bait hives and flies away.

Never. To. Be. Seen. Again.

You will be giving the bees honey supers so they can cure the nectar flowing into the hive (in a good year you will get a nice crop of spring honey!), making sure the hive is well ventilated. You can do controlled splits, such that the swarm impulse is directed by the beekeeper to generate a new colony, and in such a way that either the original colony is left strong for the honey flow, or the new colony is, just as the flow starts, reunited with the old colony. There are many, many approaches to spring splits for swarm control.

As a new beekeeper I was taught to inhibit swarming by taking out of a booming spring hive a few frames of bees, brood and fresh eggs, to put them in a nuc box with some honey/pollen stores, feed and let them raise a new queen from those fresh eggs. The variation on that theme was to wait till you see queen cells and pull those out to hatch in nuc boxes with a couple of frames of bees to take care of them…one queen cell and two frames of bees per nuc box. These methods worked, but not quite as intended. The original, strong hive still swarmed, and you were left to deal with the new colonies…and most of us have a finite amount of room and time for more colonies.

In Journeyman class, I learned a better method from my teacher, retired WA state bee inspector Jo Miller, who learned this method from her mentor, inspector Roy Thurber: take out the queen and a small court into a nuc, and let the main hive do the queen rearing. The main hive has a bigger work force to feed and care for those precious queen larvae…who eat up a lot of resources, and the more they eat, the better queen they will be. The main hive will halt swarm plans, finding themselves suddenly queenless, and egg-less. All their energy will go into foraging while they wait for the new queen to begin laying…which will take a month. Meanwhile, the old queen is busy establishing her “new” hive, and is there as a) insurance in case the new queen fails for some reason and b) to keep raising brood (you can, if you want to, meld the bees being raised by the old queen with the original hive once the new queen is established and laying).

The new queens raised by the main hive are much better fed and of higher quality than nuc-raised queens. Neither colony is inclined to swarm, and you can rinse and repeat if they are.

But there is one other way to ensure your big honey hives stay together, and stay big: use queen mandibular pheromone sticks (PseudoQueen) in the spring hives. These little sticks give off a pheromone that strongly inhibits swarming, keeping your honey hives large and intact to meet the nectar flow.

Locally, when you see the blackberries sprout clusters of tight, silver-green buds, you had better get your colonies in order.

Blackberry bud.
Blackberry bud.

Getting your colonies in order, assuming a maximum honey crop is your goal, means honey supers on, preferably full of drawn comb. The pheromones in drawn comb impel the bees to push nectar foraging rates. You can use a few drawn combs per box to bait the honey supers. You will be checking to see that the queen is laying and has room to lay in the brood nest. You want to be sure she’s been at peak lay rate in the time period of: 43 days before the honey flow (age of youngest possible forager) and 43 days + 3 weeks (the age of the oldest possible forager) before the honey flow:

In 2016, when we are anticipating another dry, warm year, that calculation (using a table of day number of year) breaks out as follows:

Anticipated date of blackberry bloom (going by the 2015 date) = June 5

Age of forager bees = 43 days from the egg

June 5 – 43 days = day 157 – 43 = day 114 = April 23 (youngest foragers on June 5)

June 5 – (43 days + 3 weeks) = day 157 – (43 + 21) = day 93 = April 02 (oldest foragers on June 5)

Therefore, I am going to bend all my spring energies to ensuring that all my honey hive queens are laying at peak, peak rate by

April 2nd, 2016

In wetter, colder springs, that date of peak lay can move back a week or two. But any way you slice your honey cake, April is the month you need your colonies to be building strongly.

When the honey flow begins, you will then find yourself with big hives, big forager forces, lots of room to store and cure nectar, and every chance of maximizing your honey crop.

There are other wise additions to the spring beeyard: a swarm bob (so you have a hope that any swarm that does erupt settles in a location you can reach and collect it from!), and a bait hive (so you can perhaps attract your own swarmed bees to a hive or even random swarms in your bee area).

To make an optimal bait hive, Dr. Tom Seeley’s research has shown us that bees are looking for a 40 litre space, preferably 15 feet off the ground, containing old comb, with a small, preferably east facing entrance. These are especially effective when at a small distance from the hives expected to swarm…our own, or possibly near a field hosting hives of pollination bees! Pollination hives become very swarm prone as they sit untended in the fields  ; ) You can also add lure…Swarm Commander has a good reputation, or make a salve of olive oil, beeswax and lemongrass oil to smear at the door and on the frame tops.

Spring Mite Control

As the colony comes out of winter, any Varroa, and there are almost always some, that have gone into the winter with the bees are now desperate to reproduce. Unfortunately, the absence of brood in the winter hive causes fertile female Varroa, who would normally just parasitize and reproduce under cappings with the pupating brood, to extend their lifetimes. They wait patiently for the early spring brood-up and typically heavily infest the first few rounds of brood. Because spring brood is very heavily predated by the mites, and because this sets off a sudden, exponential rise in mite numbers, this can cause an otherwise healthy overwintered hive to crash in spectacular and unexpected fashion.

Options for treatment are limited by weather. Before mid-March, Apivar and oxalic acid are good choices. Once the weather warms a bit, usually our first half of April, formic acid becomes possible. All are hard on weak queens, so watch the hives for queenlessness after treatment.

What is most important is to take the hives into winter with low mite loads, so late summer (pre-Winter bee laying) treatment and midwinter oxalic acid treatment (when most mites are phoretic ie. on the bees, not hidden in brood) keep mite loads to a minimum during winter and set the stage for a healthy spring expansion.

Queen Rearing Techniques

There are several approaches to raising your own queens. Go ahead and read up on them. The limitation for all production methods involving large numbers of queens is: you can’t hold them for long once they emerge. They need to be fed by a worker force, and they need to fly to mate/be inseminated within 10 days, or they will be sterile drone layers. And once mated they must be placed in a hive to begin laying.

If you produce 50 queens, you must have either 50 nucs to put them in, or inseminate them by hand, and then you still need 50 buyers ASAP, and/or 50 nucs to keep them in. And the nucs will, with new queens, expand rapidly into hives.

For the small scale beekeeper, the method outlined above works well…taking the old queen and some bees out to start a new colony, leaving the strong main hive to raise up a new, robust queen. You can do that several times over a season, particularly if you add nutritional support, and expand your apiary quite rapidly while maintaining a nice degree of control….and keeping mind that all colonies must be well on their way by July 1st, in order to have time to build and provision against winter.

On to Week Five


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s