Bees: Time for an Early Season Tune-Up

Reader Contribution by Ron Lane
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The mountains are not just snowcapped, but are covered well down into the foothills. However, even here in the High Desert of Oregon we’ve had a few days in the low sixties and more are in the forecast for the next ten days. It’s given me a chance to take inventory of my hives without going deep into them. If there is no wind, this kind of weather allows you to have a quick peek inside without harming your bees and you should be trying to get an idea of each hives health when the weather allows.

For example, my biggest two hives and by that I mean these hives are full of bees, just as if it was midsummer, have stores but will likely run short. I have already taken one frame of honey from a deadout and placed it one of these hives. The hive had two frames of honey stores remaining, but they were to the outside of the box. I did not want to leave the hive open long enough to pull frames and rearrange them, so I simply slid a middle frame out and dropped in the new frame of honey. That way there will be food right in the middle of the cluster should we get a hard freeze again that prevents them from moving about.

A quick examination of all my hives was done by removing the lid and inner cover to gauge how many bees the hive had and what level of stores were present. We are approaching the time of year when bees are lost simply because they run out of food and starve. A responsible beekeeper should know the condition of his/her hives as soon as the weather allows. Remember, the bees that have made it this far are bees that have won the battle. They survived whatever mite load was in the hive and the diseases they bring, and they also survived our sub-zero temperatures. If your girls have enough feed or even if you need to feed them for a while, these bees are going to be what you enter the season with if they don’t starve before the first spring blooms arrive.

I began the winter with twelve hives on this side (east side) of the mountains. Those hives on the west side of the mountains will soon get their own inspection. Of the 12 on the east side I have lost only three and one of those was a nucleus I bought last spring that clearly came with a massive mite load. This only serves to reinforce my belief that you are your best source of bees. (We will discuss making splits and increase at another time.) Locally, one friend of mine lost all three of her hives this winter and another friend lost two of his three hives. So I feel pretty good about only losing three hives out of 12.

With only one exception, all the hives that remain have healthy numbers. The hive that does not was an experimental split I did late in the season. Two hives have huge numbers for this time of year. If you were to look at them you would think of summer time numbers. Both of these hives are Carniolan bees and they come from a split I made in mid-May. A split is your best natural mite control and these hives show it! As a result of the split, both of these hives have young queens and though my inspection did not take me deep into the hive I would not be surprised to find the first little bit of brood here.

We will discuss the benefit of making splits at a later date, but if you have not yet reached the point of making your own splits then this is the year to learn how to do it.

The next thing to be gained from making early inspections as soon as the weather allows is a chance to inspect and prepare equipment for the coming season. It can be hard to see your girls lifeless bodies, heads buried in the comb, all clustered up, but it’s going to happen and you just need to make the best of it. I have already taken my three deadouts back to the shed and gone through them. It’s a chance to scrape out propolis and otherwise clean them up. I also check the condition of the frames and remove old comb. The old dark brood comb should be removed after a few years. Each time a larva spins a cocoon it leaves another paper thin layer behind. This is what makes the comb dark. Even though the bees clean it out, this comb gets dirty after a while and it’s just plain healthier for the hive to remove it and allow the bees build new comb.

If you have wooden frames then this is easily done by popping out the old foundation and replacing it with new. If you use foundationless frames then all you have to do is cut away the old comb and you are set to go. I am in the process of getting rid of all my plastic frames as I rotate new frames and foundation into my hives. Sometimes the bees take right to plastic, other times they build on top of it. I’m moving more and more in the direction of foundationless frames as they allow the bees to build whatever kind of comb they like.

Another benefit of cycling out old foundation is that it often contains a little stored honey in the corners of each frame. I set this old foundation out in the beeyard for the bees to rob. It makes a great early season treat for them and none of the stored honey goes to waste.

One final note. If you are planning on buying bees this year and you have not yet ordered you had better do so soon. Many suppliers sell out and you may find it difficult to find bees if you don’t order early.

So in summary, get a look inside your hives as soon as the weather allows. It does not need to be a deep inspection, but just have a look inside the inner cover to gauge the health of your hive. You shouldn’t need to feed just yet, but it’s good to know if you will need to. If you do need to feed then feed a 1:1 mix of sugar to water and remember that once you start you can’t stop until your local nectar flow begins.

Use this time to bring in your deadouts for clean up and repair equipment. If you need additional equipment now is a good time to restock. The pussy willow is about to break bud and soon the season will be in full swing. If you have prepared your equipment early in the season you will be able to focus your attention on the care and management of your hives.

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