Read the full year's posts in this series here.
I always think of April 1st as being the first day of the new beekeeping season. This is the date when we make the call on how many hives made it through winter.
This year we only lost one hive, which gave us a 94% success rate – our best year ever! I give us some credit for this – we closely monitored mite populations and made sure our bees had plenty of honey and supplemental feed for winter.
However, it was also a very mild winter, so Mother Nature deserves some of the credit as well. Many beekeepers I have talked to in this area are reporting very successful overwintering.
Mother Nature still had some tricks up her sleeve, however. On April 4th, we had more snow than we’ve had all season – about 6 inches overnight. It also got very cold – teens and twenties at night! I was a little concerned about the hives, as I had removed the insulation and tar paper during a warm spell. I checked them a few days later, and they seem to have gotten through the cold step just fine.
Our first task every spring is to do some spring cleaning in our hives. After smoking the hive and removing the outer and inner cover, we take a peek in the top super. We look for the queen, eggs or brood, honey and pollen, and to get a rough idea of how many bees are in the super.
We then carefully set the super aside. Placing it diagonally on the upside down outer cover minimizes the points of contact, so there is less chance of squishing bees. We repeat this for every super and brood box in the hive. When we get to the screened bottom board, we shake it away from the bee yard to remove debris – bits of wax, dead bees, etc., and sweep all of the debris off of our cinderblock hive stand.
Then, it’s time to put it all back together, but not in the same order! The wooden hive stand goes on our cinder blocks first, followed by the screened bottom board. Then, the box that seemed to be the most full of brood and bees goes on the bottom. If there is another box that contained brood, that would go on next.
On the top, we put a super that has some honey, nectar, and pollen, but also empty frames to give the bees room to store nectar and raise brood. Any supers that are mostly empty can be removed – we just brush the bees off of each frame, and place them in an empty super to be stored until needed.
Once the inner and outer covers have been replaced, we are ready to move on to the next hive. This gets the bees "restarted" in the bottom of the hive, so they can work upwards. Eventually honey supers will be added to the hives.
It took us about 4 hours to do all 15 hives, so about 15 minutes per hive. Again, this is just a quick check to reverse and clean up the hives, and make sure they all have laying queens and enough food. We also make notes on which hives will need attention in the near future. For example, Hive 6 seemed much grouchier and aggressive than the other hives, so we will need to check and see if they need to be requeened. Hive 12 had plenty of bees, but the brood pattern seemed spotty, so again, we will check them again in a few weeks to see if they need a new queen.
We also tagged 3 hives that seemed quite crowded. These will be good candidates for comb honey supers, and to possible pull brood from to graft queens. Both of the nucs we overwintered did great, and will need to be moved into full hives soon.
One week later, the third week of April, we returned to do some work in the bee yard. We added a cut comb honey super, and two Ross Round honey supers to the three crowded hives. With dandelions beginning to bloom, and a large population of bees, they should be able to fill these out quickly.
One of our nucs also got very crowded – the bees were bearding all over the outside of the hive (see picture above). We decided to move them into a full hive before we went away on vacation, as we were concerned about swarming. We set up a full hive stand where we had lost a hive this winter. We pulled one frame at a time from the crowded nuc, looked for the queen and any possible swarm cells, and then moved it to the new hive.
We did find one intact swarm cell on a frame, and set it aside in a separate nuc box. Once we located the queen and moved her to the new hive, we added frames to the new nuc box to equal 2 frames of brood, two frames of honey and pollen, and one drawn, but empty frame. We moved the rest of the frames to the new hive, and placed the nuc with the swarm cell where the original nuc was.
So, what we essentially did, was create an artificial “swarm” by moving the queen and most of the bees to a new location. Hopefully, the queen in the swarm cell will hatch and mate successfully, giving us a new nuc in the location of the original nuc. We’ll go back and check them in a week or so to see how they are doing.
Jennifer Ford is a science teacher and co-owner of Bees of the Woods Apiary outside of Altamont, New York. Over the past seven years, Jennifer and her husband have expanded the apiary from two to 18 beehives, and share what they have learned about beekeeping with others through mentoring programs and presentations. Learn more about Bees of the Woods Apiary and beekeeping in general at www.BeesOfTheWoods.com or on the Bees of the Woods Facebook page. Read all of Jennifer’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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