Exam Notes 1: The Arc of the Beekeeping Year

small can be big


In the spring, assuming the girls made it through the winter, you are checking for:

  1. life in the hive! are the bees flying? how big do you think the cluster is? is there brood coming along?
  2. do they have stores? especially honey
  3. do they need feeding…generally if we want a good honey crop or to sell nucs, the bees are going to be given all they need for success, in particular pollen/protein patties and syrup feeds when it is cold and the bees are waiting for the spring pollens and nectars (note: no feeding once honey supers go on)
  4. are they well? is there any sign of disease or pest load? do a 24 hour mite drop count onto an oiled mite counting sheet to get a rough idea of mite load

You can do your first real inspections on a warm, sunny, low-or-no wind day in excess of 15C. This is still chilly as far as the brood is concerned, so do not linger over your inspections of frames with open brood. Eggs and larvae can chill and die quickly, particularly if there is a bit of a wind.

Of first importance is: do you have new eggs and brood in the hive, any at all? Not only does the colony desperately need to breed up new spring bees to replace the old and aging-out winter bees, they have to build numbers for the honey flow. So your first spring question will be: is there a fertile queen in my hive, and is she laying as she ought to be?

Typically, young queens (and we are trying to requeen by late summer every year or two) will come out of winter laying up a storm. Many beekeepers use laying rate in the early spring as a guide to which queens they breed from. Since most are looking for good honey production, a queen that overwinters AND lays heavily in the spring is a good bet for having what it takes to make a good line of honey producers.

Queens that are laying heavily in spring are critical to those wanting to offer spring nucs for sale, and to those wanting to field pollination hives for the first crop blooms.

It is interesting to note how much of the fall honey stores are still present, and if the cluster is a good size. Thriftiness in overwintering well is another great quality to look for in your potential bee breeding program queens.

You will look carefully at all the frames to see how much they have left in terms of stores. Until the Big Leaf maples bloom, with their bounty of nectar and pollen, the hives are not safe from starvation. So I prefer to offer sugar bricks/Krabby Patties on the top bars as emergency feed until the days are above 10C, and syrup and pollen/protein patty (PP) feeds after that.

Bees draw heavily on stores during the spring brood-up, and can starve just before the spring sources of nectar and pollen appear: feed them well to be safe rather than sorry.

The first spring food for your bees will be willows, maples, and dandelions. Let a thousand dandelions bloom!!

Brad Beck photo
Brad Beck photo

Are the bees well? Do you see anything odd or unusual? Strange or obviously foulbrood-affected larvae? Bees acting or looking funny? How is your 24 hour mite drop count??

Varroa populations, low during the winter thanks to the paucity of brood to infest and reproduce in, can boom in the spring with the first few rounds of brood. Be very alert to mite loads, and consider carefully your spring mite control tactics. If your 24 hour drops are large, over 10 mites, treat ASAP. In cold weather we can use Amitraz strips or oxalic acid. As the weather moves reliably above 15C in the day, we can use formic acid pads or dribble.

Note that Varroa can overwhelm a colony in the spring, able to reproduce at exponential rates while the bees labour to increase their own population. If you think you have a mite load, deal with it earlier than later. Treat ASAP if your new bees are hatching with obvious mite issues, ie. Deformed Wing Virus, photo below.



Again, we are looking to see the following:

  1. queen in the hive and laying well
  2. no disease or pests
  3. hive population should be booming now
  4. we are on the alert for swarming prep…sudden slowdown in egg laying and the appearance of queen cells

Summer management is all about dealing with the natural swarming impulse. The healthier the hive, the more vigourous it will be, and the more vigourous it is, the more it will want to swarm…early and often.

Signs that a hive is going to enter swarm mode are:

  1. the open space in the brood nest gets plugged with nectar (nectar bound)…remember the queen is laying at a high rate, so the bees are finding less and less room to put the spring nectars. If they run out of easy room, they will decide to swarm based on an algorithm only the bees really understand, but is roughly crowded state x abundance factor of nectar and pollens x age of queen = likelihood of swarming
  2. suddenly the egg laying rate drops off (good you made notes in your bee inspection notebook, right!?)…indicating the bees are slimming your queen down by putting her on a diet. She stops laying and gets ready to fly.
  3. you see queen cups with eggs in them, or full queen cells….emergency!!!
  4. there is lots of drone brood suddenly coming along in the hive

If you see any of these signs, or more than one of them, immediately execute your swarm control plan. To prevent swarming, we want to keep the main hive as large as possible for the approaching honey flow (assuming we want a good honey crop), but give the bees the feeling they have swarmed. If we are wanting to sell nucs, we can harvest capped queen cells and put each into their own nuc with frames of bees, brood and stores, and let the queens fly and mate. When they return and start laying worker brood, we can sell the nuc.

Or you can let the hive swarm and enjoy restocking the wild places. Just be aware that urban bees may become very unpopular with your neighbours if they swarm! Swarms look terrifying to those not familiar with honey bees.

Keep inspecting for disease and pests. Keep an eye on colony vigour…the colony should be expanding steadily. If it is not, and is quiet at the door, or has no bees coming in with pollen (indicating queenlessness) look for the reason. There should always be sheets of new eggs in the hive.

As long as they are hauling in nectar and pollen, you don’t need to feed.

Also remember that once honey supers go on, you must not offer them sugar syrup (or your honey will not really be honey!), or put on mite control medications.

If you want to maximize your honey crop, put empty honey supers on the hives two weeks before the big flow (here on the coast we often get a good maple/hawthorn flow in April, so you can put the honey supers on then, taking care not to mix frames of sugar water “honey” with the frames of true honey), preferably full of drawn comb from last year, or baited with a couple of frames in the middle of drawn comb.

Always remember you can paint a thickish layer of old, clean beeswax onto your bare plastic foundation to get the bees to draw it out and use it quickly, both in the brood frames and the honey frames!!!

You can give the bees lots of room to bring in raw nectar, space to cure that nectar while they evaporate it down to under 18% moisture content and cap it over. You can remove fully capped frames as they are capped out, putting in empties for them to fill. And you can move full frames to the outside positions, placing the empty or partially filled frames in the centre postions in the super…those practices accelerate the rate at which nectar is gathered and frames filled.

Toward the end of summer, and here after our blackberry bloom season, the hives will slow down, and this area experiences a severe nectar dearth. If you can, plant swathes of bee forage, succession sown for late summer nectar and pollen sources. But if the hives seem to be struggling to keep stores on hand…honey capped on the shoulders of the brood nest frames, and honey capped in the single honey super you will leave them for winter feed…start to feed the bees.

Feeding in late summer, of both syrup and PP’s, is aimed at rearing healthy winter bees, a process that probably starts in mid August.

Keep an eye on mite loads…you will likely have to treat after the honey season. Personally I treat late summer whether they seem to need it or not…I am that afraid of mite populations killing the hive in winter. And in bee-dense areas, drift of bees between hives practically guarantees you will always, always have a Varroa mite load. Dang it.

And keep an eye on the robbing situation. I advocate robbing screens on ALL hives once the dearth sets in, and in addition, reduced entrances on smaller, weaker hives. On very small hives reduce the front entrance, consider eliminating the upper entrance, and also use a robbing screen. Wasps or robber bees can destroy a hive in hours.

Do everything you can to prevent robbing!

And be aware that robbing screens probably do a very good job of preventing drift…and if drift is the way a lot of Varroa and disease gets into formerly well hives….hmmmm. Hoping someone does a proper study on this issue soon, but from now on I am considering keeping robbing screens in place year round.


Fall is all about ensuring there is brood rearing happening, even if in reduced quantities, that the hives are free of disease and pests, and that there are adequate winter stores on hand. You know how to do that! Watch carefully, and feed.

By mid October we are looking at getting the hives buttoned up for winter. Once the days fall below 10C, we cannot feed syrup any longer and it is time to do winter prep, which principally aims to keep the bees dry, sheltered and fed:

  1. make sure there are adequate winter stores in the hive
  2. make sure bees are healthy and as mite free as possible
  3. make sure you have a live queen in the hive
  4. put a sugar brick/Krabby Patty over the top bars, where it is accessible in the warm current of air coming off the cluster, as emergency rations
  5. place a ventilated quilt box on the hive
  6. place the inner cover OVER the quilt box, where condensation will drip into the quilt box material, not onto the bees…damp is the big killer of bees in the winter as when they are damp, they chill, and a chilled bee loses muscle movement, which means no wing vibration to generate cluster heat = death.
  7. place a “rain hat” (a 3′ x 3′ piece of plywood) on top of the outer cover
  8. weight the rain hat heavily and/or strap hive down to weather winter winds
  9. wrap as desired, ensuring bees have a lower entrance open
  10. and then prepare to fret all winter because if something goes wrong in cold weather, there is really nothing you can do about it!!! Except photograph the death of your colony with your infrared camera…


Winter management is light. Replenish the emergency stores if necessary, until the spring nectar/pollen flows…and hope.

Keep the entrance clear! You can with a hooked stick or rod, brush the dead bees off the bottom of the hive floor, and be sure the lower entrance is not blocked by dead bee bodies. The bees need to fly to cleanse.

Watch the hive on sunny, warmish days for flights. Here on the coast we often get weather all winter in which the bees can fly on cleansing (defecation) flights, and often even make pollen gathering flights. The English Ivy, an invasive much beloved by beekeepers, sets pollen in the winter. You may see pollen coming into the hive all winter long. Yay!

Check to make sure the hive is intact and the rain hat secure. A hive that blows over in a wind is likely histoire!






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