When is it time to harvest? Each beekeeper has his personal approach.
The one rule to honey harvesting is: harvest and bottle ONLY cured honey, which by definition is 18% or less water by content.
This can be measured with a refractometer. The rule of thumb in the field is: only process frames of honey that are 90% or more capped over honey. Anything with more open cells can be put back on the hive in the hope the bees will finish filling and capping the cells.
If your honey has a water content over 18%, it can ferment, which ruins the honey. Also note that honey is hygroscopic, if left uncovered it absorbs moisture from the air. In a humid atmosphere, it will rapidly absorb water post harvest, even through the cappings, and be ruined. So process right away or freeze…or make into mead!
Some harvest as the frames are capped out, giving the bees empty comb to fill. Rinse and repeat for a max honey harvest! You can process immediately, or hold your honey frames in a freezer. Honey freezes well and freezing prevents crystallization.
Honey frames can be held until you have enough for a batch process, then rewarmed. Or held until a hive needs a frame of honey…maybe one of your spring hives is light and needs the food, or maybe you are making nucs, which each must have a couple of frames of stores on board.
Some harvest once the honey flow (blackberry in our area) ends. Some harvest between nectar flows, attempting to garner varietal honeys or to at least separate our their honeys into spring honey, summer honey, fall honey. As a rule, there will be very different flavour profiles, appearance and crystallization rates between the different nectar flows!
Locally, our spring honey is usually pale and citrusy with bright herbal notes (likely from maple and hawthorn). The summer honey is golden yellow, rich and buttery (likely from blackberry). The fall honey is darker, with deeper and more sultry herbal and smoky notes (likely from loosestrife and evergreen honeydews).
Once the honey flow is over, the bees may start to draw down the stored honey to eat themselves as the late summer nectar dearth sets in. Some beekeepers keep a hive sensor on at least one hive in the beeyard to track this. Once the bees begin to use their stored honey, the honey is harvested and feeding for winter begins. While it is no doubt better for the bees to eat their own honey, the beekeeper may be depending on honey sales to keep the beeyard funded!
Some beekeepers leave the honey on till the following spring, and only harvest once the spring flow begins. This works well as long as the local honey is not prone to quick crystallization. It is pretty much impossible to process honey crystallized in the comb. Crystallized honey is best fed back to the bees.
Once the honey is processed, either via crush and strain for smaller operations, or via uncapping and extracting in a larger one, you are left with sticky wax cappings. You can add a bit of water to them and feed that back to the bees in your in-hive feeder. You can spread a layer of cappings on top of the inner cover and let the bees clean them up, removing the cleaned wax cappings for melting down into beeswax blocks. You can also spread them on a large pan and let the bees rob the pan in the beeyard. But that risks disease transfer, fighting and robbing.
After straining, bottle your honey in clean, dry jars of your choice and get the lids on right away to prevent moisture absorption and fermentation.
Cut comb honey is produced by using very thin, purpose-made, sheets of wax foundation, which are put on the hive in a strong honey flow. Once drawn out, filled and capped, these frames of honey can easily be cut with a comb honey cutter:
Because honey is a food product, keep the honey line tidy and clean, and keep the processing staff tidy and clean too!
Honey will, inevitably, crystallize (great link!!). That does not mean it is bad. You can gently rewarm the honey in a warming cupboard or warm water bath, taking care not to heat it above 40C/140F. Depending on the floral nectar souce, crystallization can be slow or fast…lightning fast! So when your bees are on sources that crystallize quickly, harvest ASAP.
Commercial honeys are heated and micro-filtered to prevent crystallization on the store shelf. That is part of why commercial honeys have less interesting flavour profiles than local raw honeys (the other reason being much of the commercial crop is blended with/derived from clover and canola, mild honeys by nature). Note that canola is almost always GMO seed. Many consumers are not comfortable with GMO foods.
Honey is awesome stuff. And I feel inordinately proud of the honey my bees produce. I help the girls but they do all the work. It is a delight to give jars away, and most people are eager to get a jar of local, raw honey.
Your whole bee year comes down to this: getting the bees through the winter.
It doesn’t matter if you got lots of honey, or caught tons of swarms, or split your hives six ways from Sunday.
To paraphrase Randy Oliver, if you don’t get your bees through winter, you are not keeping bees…you are just buying bees every spring.
And worse, you are now part of the bee problem, not part of the bee solution.
To prepare a bee colony for winter, the following points are critical:
the colony must have a fertile queen
the colony must be a decent size so they can form a warm winter cluster
the colony must have successfully raised a good crop of healthy winter bees
the colony must have good amounts of capped honey and pollen in the hive
the colony must be disease free and as mite free as possible
the colony must be kept dry
the colony must have some ventilation/insulation to prevent condensation forming on a cold inner cover and dripping down onto the cluster
the colony must be out of or protected from wind, which strips warmth out of the cluster
the colony entrance must remain clear of dead bees so live bees can take cleansing flights
the colony must not blow over (strap it down if necessary)
in our rainy climate a 3′ x 3′ board put on top of the outer cover will act as a rain hat, strap or weight it down well against winter winds.
There are various ways of accomplishing these ends. They are, principally:
don’t strip too much honey out of the hives in the late summer…leave them lots, you can always harvest in spring: you can also feed in August/September to bring up winter weight, and leave them emergency rations above the cluster…note that in some areas, fall honeys are poor as overwintering food ie. they granulate quickly in the comb and/or have high levels of solids (which is a problem when you are a bee and have to wait for sunny warm days for bathroom breaks!)
keep the hive slightly crowded so the bees can heat the cluster as efficiently as possible
put a mite counting sheet and/or extra bottom insulation in so the screened bottom board is not completely open (consider creating a dead air space below the bottom board)
put a rain hat on the hive, or make sure if you are in snow that the bees have a clear entrance
make sure you have done your late summer mite control
Generally, you want to concentrate on hive health and queen-rightness in late summer, to enable top quality winter bees to be laid and raised. You want to feed up the hive in fall to ensure they have lots of stores.
A sugar brick or Krabby Patty positioned on the top bars, over the cluster but under the quilt box, provides emergency rations. To leave a higher volume of those rations, build a shallow (3″ high) super, staple 1/4″ grid wire on as a floor, lay one sheet of newspaper on that floor, and fill the entire thing with dampened sugar. Am alternate config: put an in-hive feeder filled with dampened sugar over the inner cover, and then insulate over that, heavily. Whatever form your emergency rations take, replace when necessary.
Your hive is only safe when the nectar and pollen sources come online in the spring. Locally that is the bloom of the Big Leaf Maples (Oregon Maples), which is some time in very early April, depending on the weather.
Until then, the bees are depending on you to step in if they are starving. Check those emergency stores regularly, and feed syrup when days are consistently over 10C.
It is not so critical to memorize what to do about diseases, pests, and catastrophic hive events (you can always look that up).
It is critical to recognize them!
That ability to recognize a disease process in progress is arguably the most important beekeeping skill: here then is a quick summary of what should set off your beekeeperly alarm bells:
Survey the Open Brood
All, all, ALL!!! of the open brood should be fat, juicy, pearly white, gleaming and wet looking. All of it. If you see any brood that are dried up looking, off-colour, in a strange position, or which look rotted or unnatural, pull the alarm bell.
European Foulbrood, caused by the Melissococcus plutonius bacterium affects open brood. Brood before capping. It is transmitted from infected nurse bees by mouth as they feed the larvae their gut contents. Over time the hive’s stores of nectar and bee bread (the fermented pollen fed to larvae) will be infected as well, passing through so many guts and infecting new bees.
The cappings on the brood should look solid and intact. American Foulbrood, caused by the bacterium Paenibacillus larvae ssp. larvae generally kills the bee larvae post capping. The bees sense that the larvae under capping is dead or dying and they will uncap ragged holes in the brood, in their attempt to remove the problem larva. Unfortunately, removal is by mouth and this infects a new cohort of bees, who in turn infect all their fellows and the new larvae they feed.
Both the Foulbroods will, early or late, smell nasty. Like rotting meat or smelly old socks in a gym bag. Bad smells in the hive are always an indication that something is amiss.
Treatment is a combination of medication and getting the bees off the old, contaminated comb and hive contents. In the case of AFB, resistant spores are generated that can only be destroyed via irradiation (ie. at an Iotron facility) or burning.
Other brood diseases (sacbrood, chalkbrood) all exhibit deformed, off colour, odd or dead larvae. If you see something unusual in your open brood, or notice that developed bees are remaining in the cells, unhatched and dead, identify the cause immediately and take remedial action ASAP.
Examine the Brood Pattern
A healthy, vigourous queen should lay solid sheets of brood. If they are spotty “shotgun” patterns, examine carefully for disease. Shotgun brood pattern can also be from a poor queen, a queen infected with Nosema, or Varroasis. Sometimes a new queen or new nuc may display a shotgun pattern, but within a couple of weeks you should see solid sheets of brood. If the shotgun pattern persists, pull the alarm bell!
Also check that you have new eggs in the hive. When you do not, find that queen. Is she missing? Or is she not laying? Why isn’t she laying? Maybe a swarm is about to go off. Maybe she failed to mate successfully and is infertile. Figure it out.
Check the brood cappings. Is most of the capped brood smooth worker brood? Or is your queen laying only raised drone brood, indicating she failed to mate (fertilized eggs make worker bees, unfertilized eggs make drone bees). An infertile queen needs to be replaced. Note that her hive cannot raise a replacement queen from drone eggs!
Examine the Adult Bees
Are your bees all plump, normal body proportions, bustling happily about? Or do you see deformed wings (indicating Deformed Wing Virus, vectored by Varroa mites), stumpy bodies, tiny wizened bees, or black, greasy bees?? Are they wandering about looking dazed, unable to fly (possible tracheal mite infection), or are they trembling constantly (possible Israeli Paralysis virus, also mite-vectored)?
Always be on top of the Varroa mite situation. Not only are they deadly on their own, unchecked, but they vector a host of diseases.
If the adults look unusual or wrong, then something probably is wrong! Get to the bottom of the issue immediately.
Examine the Hive
Do you see fecal streaking on the exterior of the hive, or on the interior? That is abnormal and indicates temporary dysentery at best (contaminated/fermented feed somewhere??) and pesticide poisoning or Nosema apis at worst. You need to medicate for Nosema immediately and hope that works.
Is there mold and/or dead bees in the combs, and/or wax moths? If there is, reduce the hive size to make sure “the colony fits the hive” ie. they have a home size they can keep clean, warm and patrolled. Make sure they are healthy, and that the hive is dry and ventilated.
Remember that strong hives, particularly in a nectar dearth, will attack weak hives, stealing their honey. Reduced entrances and robbing screens are the answer here. If robbing is in progress, completely shut the hive being robbed, make necessary changes and hope the robber bees do not return next day. Move the robbed hive if necessary.
Wasps will rob out hives, eating eggs, larvae, adults (all good protein sources for baby wasps) as well as the nectar and honey. This is common in late summer, when wasp populations are at their peak and raising queens to overwinter.
Be careful, particularly in a nectar dearth, not to spill feed or honey in the beeyard, which can set off a robbing frenzy, or feed from open feeders (ditto, and also a disease transfer station!), or leave honey filled hives open (invites hungry robbers in). Do not leave undefended honey supers in the beeyard: they will be robbed in a twinkling.
If a hive has been robbed, check the next day (when things have settled down) to ensure the queen was not killed in the raid.
Evaluate the Vigour of the Colony
Always ask yourself if the hive is as vigourous as it should be for the time of year.Is the queen laying properly, is the hive building in spring and remaining as strong as it was a month ago? Or is it stalling out and/or dwindling for some reason. It could be you have a failing queen, or Nosema ceranae loose in the hive. You could have a sick hive, or one being predated by skunks at night (they love to eat bees!). Maybe it’s honey bound and there is no room for your queen to lay.
Any colony that is not bringing in pollen when others are, is failing to store nectar and honey, or is quiet at the door (little bee traffic, particularly when nearby hives have lots), or is failing to take a syrup feed (especially if other hives are taking it well) has a problem.
If you colony is not doing well, there has to be a reason. Find it.
There are an abundance of books and web based information pages to help you identify and remediate your hive issues. It also helps to join a good local bee club, and find a few older more experienced beekeepers as mentors. Take a bee course, as that guarantees an instant mentor! Go online and ask questions (include photos if possible) on bee forums. There is lots and lots of support out there.
Note that in the USA, several universities offer online courses leading to the Master Beekeeper certification.
Swarms will set up in the oddest places…but usually they are up in a tree somewhere. Within reach, we hope!
Swarms are the natural way bee colonies reproduce. Sensing the nectar and pollen bounties of spring, the increased crowding in the hive as the first rounds of brood hatch, and the shrinking brood area as brood and nectar vie for cell space, swarm preparations begin.
The workers decide to construct one to many queen cells. These elongated, peanut shaped structures hang off the face or bottom edge of the frames, and the larvae inside are lavishly fed royal jelly until they cap (on Day 7/8 post laying). Once the queen cells start to cap over, their queen larvae spinning their cocoons and metamorphosing into queen bees, the old queen leaves the hive with roughly half of the hive population (all ages), and as much honey as they can carry in their guts.
The resulting swarm erupts from the hive, then settles onto a perch nearby. They can remain there for up to several days, while the older scout bees fly out to find suitable homes. They are looking for:
a roughly 40 litre cavity
preferably 15′ or so off the ground
preferably with a 15 cm, east facing opening
preferably containing old brood comb
But alas few swarm colonies will survive the next winter, as they will be overcome by mites even if they can build up a colony that is large enough and well provisioned enough to endure the cold season.
Swarms are extremely docile. The bees’ tummies are stuffed with honey and so they cannot easily sting. They are collected by simply shaking them into a suitable container, then are taken to a hive and dumped inside. You can ensure a swarm stays in the hive you choose by giving them a frame of brood. Honey bees are very, very reluctant to abandon brood. Although recent research indicates they are most “invested” in capped brood, I like to give them a frame of brood in all stages if I can. Just covering all the bases…
Because they are now without stores, a swarm colony is fed nectar and protein patties until it is putting up its own honey. This ensures healthy brood and new bees right from the start.
Swarms may be leaving hives crashing from disease, stress or pests. So watch any caught swarm carefully as it may need treatment. Quarantine them in a remote yard if you can.
Swarm control generally consists of:
making sure there is always space for the queen to lay (open brood nest) by adding frames of empty drawn comb or waxed foundation to the brood area
adding another deep super once the existing super(s) are 80% drawn and full
maintaining young queens in the hive (under 2 years of age)
maintaining good ventilation in the hive (rising CO2 levels from crowding are a spur to swarming)
splitting if the queen suddenly reduces her rate of lay (in preparation to swarm) or queen cells appear
**note that when a nectar flow is imminent, you must put on honey supers, more than you think the bees will need. Failing to do so forces house bees to store the incoming nectar anywhere they can, including the broodnest. If the broodnest becomes “nectar bound”, that will trigger swarming. So super for honey early and often, ensuring that one empty honey super is over the broodnest at all times during a nectar flow!!!
In the spring, the swarm impulse is mercilessly strong. So inspecting carefully every 7-10 days is essential or you risk a swarm going off.
NOTE: a queen cell can be started the minute you close up the hive after an inspection and in theory, the swarm can go off within 7 days, ie. as soon as the queen cells is capped and before you do your next inspection!!!! If you want to prevent swarms, inspect often.
Signs a hive has swarmed are:
no queen in the hive!
no eggs (or young open brood) in the hive
queen cups with eggs in them or queen cells in the hive
bees seem skittish and agitated
you may hear “the queenless roar”
lots of empty cells, polished and waiting for the next queen to start laying
When a swarm leaves, your hive population is halved, and your colony will be broodless from the time the old queen stops laying until the new queen comes into lay. That can be 3 to 4 weeks! More if the colony decides to let the new queen swarm off as well, which it will do if it hatches multiple fine queens and has a healthy population. If swarming happens in the lead up to the nectar flow, your hive will be seriously reduced in size, low on mature foragers, and will not be able to put up good amounts of honey.
So for honey producers, swarm control is the main focus of spring management!
There are many methods of splitting as swarm control. Which you use depends on your beekeeping goals.
three frames of brood, including eggs and capped brood
a fertile, laying queen under 2 years of age
There are special boxes manufactured for this purpose (they work really well as swarm gathering boxes too!), boxes imaginatively named “nucleus (nuc) boxes”:
Nucs can help with swarm control (taking excess population out of the main hive, along with the old queen or queen cells), can serve as nurseries for new queens, can serve as a place to hold the old queen while a hive requeens itself, and is generally a reservoir offering a small colony for sale or for adding to a queenless colony in your own apiary.
Worker bees and brood can also be put into a nuc box, without the queen, and layered via the newspaper method onto a hive needing a boost.
It is always handy to have a few empty nuc boxes on hand. You never know when you will need one for a swarm call!
Making queens and new colonies is my favourite part of beekeeping. Left to myself I would run all nucs and devote all my time to queen and colony production. There are many methods for raising queens. For our small apiary the easiest and best method is to take the old queen out into a nuc with a small support staff and feed them both syrup and protein supplement. They will cook along nicely with HRH safe and sound while the main colony goes into panic mode and raises a new crop of queen cells.
The main colony has more bees and resources to pour into those queen cells, and since queen quality is largely a function of queen larval nutrition, the main colony can raise very well fed queens. As extra insurance I also feed the main colony while they are raising the new queen cells.
I find that queens that come out of this method are big, fat and sassy…good producers.
You can go into the hive once the queen cells are a couple of days from emergence and, if there are 5 or more, either cull or harvest the smallest ones. I would leave at least three of the largest to give the bees some choice in who they choose to emerge and survive. The bees will back the queen they feel is best, and they are seldom wrong.
Harvested mature queen cells can be put into waiting, queenless nucs to emerge and mate.
There are all kinds of approaches to queen rearing, but if you want a batch of queens, try this method for the small apiary:
I am not entirely joking when I say there are Three Horsemen of the Bee Apocalypse. I think honey bee populations worldwide are balanced on a knife’s edge. Here in Canada, there appear to be no more truly feral colonies, ie. colonies that survive in the wild, without any help from a beekeeper, and which overwinter successfully. This means if managed (kept) colonies of bees fail, there will be NO honey bees in Canada. Period.
And the main reason kept colonies may fail are the Three Horsemen:
Varroa are alas, fiendishly successful at parasitizing honey bees. Not only do they suck the hemolymph (insect blood), of both adults and larvae, weakening the adults and damaging the pupating baby bees, Varroa vector (carry to) the bees a host of serious viruses, and our twin nemeses the foulbroods AFB and EFB. There just isn’t any good news for bees once the Varroa arrive.
Worse, they breed up much more rapidly than the honey bees and can evolve quickly, thanks to their biology and reproductive strategies, to become resistant to whatever selective pressures we place upon them. They quickly evolved resistance to the first few miticides used, and in spite of aggressive treatment programs, mite infestation is a universal experience of honey bees. We just can’t seem to get rid of them no matter what we do.
Even small mite loads have a big negative effect on the bees’ ability to generate a honey crop, or overwinter successfully. And because mites reproduce exponentially, they will, over time, completely overwhelm a colony. Brood fail to hatch, viruses (most notably Deformed Wing Virus) abound, EFB and AFB appear, and the colony collapses and dies.
There are many ways to attack the Varroa mites, from the use of “hard” chemicals in the hive, in the form of the medications fluvalinate, coumaphos, amitraz. In the form of the “soft” treatments: essential oils, formic acid, oxalic acid, hopguard, thymol. And on to the various Integrated Pest Management tricks like screened bottom boards, sacrificial drone brood, icing sugar dusts, grease patties, feed additives (like Honey B Healthy), small cell foundation (on the theory that small cells force bees to hatch faster, reducing or eliminating the reproductive power of Varroa mites), unusual hive types, and breeding up survivor stock.
So far, we can only reduce the impact of Varroa infestation. We cannot eliminate the Varroa. There is a Nobel Prize waiting for the biogengineer who can eradicate Varroa mites.
A large part of the beekeeping year is understanding when to apply mite treatments, allowing a maximum number of healthy bees to hatch out and take their place in the colony.
Principally, we treat (using whatever methods we find comfortable and effective):
in early spring, to ensure the first critical rounds of brood are not infested by overwintering Varroa
after the honey harvest, to ensure the critical winter bees are able to develop Varroa free
in midwinter, when brood is absent or nearly absent from the hives, meaning all the Varroa are out on bees, not hidden under brood cappings, where they are very vulnerable to treatment; which at this time of year is via oxalic acid vapour or dribble.
So successful beekeeping demands that the beekeeper become expert in foiling the mites. Read all you can on the Varroa destructor.
The second challenge to honey bee survival is the increasing degradation of quantity and quality of bee forage. We are losing our wild places, we are aggressively managing our roadway verges, parks, home gardens, forests and even our farm fields. There is little tolerance for weedy, flowery pastures or empty lots, and as urban land becomes increasingly expensive, cities are densifying, which means little or no open land on which to grow anything.
Ditto in the farm fields! Now fields are ploughed and managed margin-to-margin, planted with monocultures and aggressively treated with herbicides, fungicides, pesticides and fertilizers. There is no tolerance for weeds or non-productive areas.
Because we are denying Mother Nature any place in which wildflowers can bloom in meaningful quantities, it will take a shift in our culture to make the world a better place for honey bees and all the other pollinators. We have to plant mindfully, creating pollinator pasture out of every possible nook and cranny. We have to encourage homeowners and municipalities to purpose-plant for pollinators: if every garden had one spring flowering heather, one maple tree, dandelions, a catmint plant, mints, dills or borage, sedum, asters, some clovers (so amenable to succession sowing) and Rose of Sharon (hibiscus syriacus) shrubs, there would be a season long abundance for all urban pollinators. And if we could take pride in a front yard planted in a bee pasture mix, pretty unmown grasses spangled with pollinator friendly flowers, entire cities would be pollinator paradises.
Think of all the space you see taken up with lawn grass or field grasses, replanted with an enduring bee pasture mix!
Bees are little more than flying guts. They need season long, varied pollen and nectar sources to fuel all the activities of the hive. Hungry bees, or bees forced (as pollination bees are) to eat a severely limited diet, are stunted, stressed and prone to disease and parasitization. Poor nutrition makes them vulnerable.
Poor or scarce feed also put enormous pressure on the honey bee to fly vast distances (for a bee) and in the process out-compete the many and valuable native pollinators (many of whom have short flight ranges). If we plant more forage, we help all pollinators.
The beekeeper can, if s/he is fortunate, purpose plant for their bees. Failing that, you can seek apiary locations that are favourable…acres of blackberries being one option. You can enrich your local community by “donating” bee pasture seed and bee plants to all unclaimed/idle lands, lobbying for more pollinator patches in your community.
All field sprays, and pesticides in particular, have effects on bees. Even sprays applied to non-bee forage crops drift onto nearby hedgerows, blanketing the wildflowers there with things that harm the bees. Field sprays can out and out kill the bees that feed upon sprayed nectar plants, or have devastating, long lasting, sublethal effects ie. deformed or weak brood, reduced drone fertility, or memory impairment in foragers, who then cannot find existing forage or their way home.
Herbicides kill all plants: check the margins of sprayed fields and you often see the blackberries or hedgerow plants killed by herbicide drift, depleting an already scarce bee forage resource.
Farmers use these sprays to reduce the labour cost of bringing a crop to market. We need to shift our agricultural practices toward the organic, coming up with innovative ways to garden and farm efficiently and organically.
The beekeeper can educate both farmers and consumers to go organic (if people don’t buy what they spray, they won’t spray it any more!!!), and plant pollinator strips in all fields, and bee pasture in all fallow fields.
Be aware that biofuel is largely corn based. Large swathes of corn monoculture are very bad for bees! The corn seed is neonicotinoid coated, causing lethal and sublethal issues in colonies near fields. And the land is being occupied by a plant of little use to bees (they will gather some corn pollen but it is not a preferred pollen due to its low nutritional profile). And the large tracts sown in corn, like the almond orchards, mean there is no season long forage within a reasonable flight range for honey bees or other pollinators, driving down their numbers and diversity. The remedy here would be requiring all biofuel fields to be organic, and to include strips of pollinator pasture.
Ditto the other killer monoculture in our world, soybeans. Soybeans are a major component of animal feed, so limiting meat consumption is also one way to help honey bees and pollinators.
In the spring, assuming the girls made it through the winter, you are checking for:
life in the hive! are the bees flying? how big do you think the cluster is? is there brood coming along?
do they have stores? especially honey
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)
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!!
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.
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:
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
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.
you see queen cups with eggs in them, or full queen cells….emergency!!!
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.
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:
make sure there are adequate winter stores in the hive
make sure bees are healthy and as mite free as possible
make sure you have a live queen in the hive
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
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.
place a “rain hat” (a 3′ x 3′ piece of plywood) on top of the outer cover
weight the rain hat heavily and/or strap hive down to weather winter winds
wrap as desired, ensuring bees have a lower entrance open
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!
Given that bees do quite well in the absence of a beekeeper IF they are free of disease and pests, and have adequate forage, our exam will focus on what the beekeeper brings to the bees: the ability to recognize and treat disease and pest conditions, and expertise on the needs of the colony throughout the year, and when they need feeding and beekeeper suppport.
Of less importance to the bees is the beekeeper’s skill in managing swarming, reproduction and nectar gathering and honey harvesting. Those may be critical to the beekeeper, but not so much to the bees!
The only value this NewBees course has for all of you is that you get a clear idea of what is required of a beekeeper, and that you go into your first beekeeping adventure with a realistic set of expectations. The upwards of 80% of beekeepers who end their beekeeping careers in under three years probably do so out of frustration…principally frustration when their bees keep dying from either disease or failure to overwinter. I want you to have the tools to deal with those situations, and to avoid quitting out of needless frustration.
Not that beekeeping will cease to offer its unique frustrations, disappointments and challenges. As the saying goes, the bees do not read the same books we read. The heart of beekeeping, and one of its enchantments, is that constant need to problem solve. You never know what you are going to find when you open up a hive. There are often very deep mysteries waiting for you there. Difficult logic problems. But with some good basic knowledge, and with the proper direction in seeking resources, all those problems are explicable, if not soluble!
So I will break down your exam research topics into the following, posting a page for each:
Note that as always, I am looking at the art of beekeeping through the lens of being resident in the coastal Pacific Northwest.
The exam will be multiple choice (much as I would love to set you all a series of essay topics!), and will be open book/open resource. You can rewrite it as many times as is necessary to score 90% or better to pass. A certificate of completion will be provided upon a successful pass.
Good luck, and from the bottom of my heart, may you find all this useful in having long and happy lives as beekeepers!