Spring Fever and the Bees

Reader Contribution by Mary Jane Phifer

The last few weeks of winter seem to be the hardest on our bees.  The crazy yo-yo temperatures, fluctuations in humidity, the wind, varmints looking for an easy meal, and queens who might just not have the right stuff anymore.  We always seem to lose a hive or two (or three) and once or twice in our 6 years beekeeping, had them all muddle through. 

Not so this winter, we lost our biggest hive.

Recently on a nice day I took a peek at the hives: bees going in and out of the two “smaller hives” but where I had seen lots of bee activity a couple weeks before at the large hive, all was quiet.  I opened up the hive and found a mound of dead bees.  Bees stuck in comb.  Bees in piles.  They had starved.  The comb was stripped bare.  Just heartbreaking.

Why one hive starved and two smaller ones do not makes me think the larger hive just had too many mouths to feed.  Or too much varroa..  Or something…  I had been putting sugar on damp newspaper (this winter’s version of supplemental feeding) on all three and the two smaller hives were making use of it.  Not so much with the bigger hive- made me think they thought they had plenty of honey.

Regardless, today it hit 78F.  Such warm temperatures this time of year must not go to waste!  I girded myself with the tools needed to make a proper spring inspection: a new box of foundation (not drawn out) for each hive, extra hive lid, smoker, hive tool, sugar syrup and plastic spray bottle.  (Note:  We have transitioned to using three “honey super” sized boxes for brood as well as for honey production/storage.  No more deep brood boxes and frames and foundation in different sizes.  Everything is the same size and interchangeable! The bees live in three boxes now, not two.)

  • The hives stand on screened bottoms that have a removable “liner” board.  I began by gently pulling the bottom liner board out of the slot a little bit.  I keep it in during winter and take it out when the hard freezes are past.  A few puffs of smoke under the hive draws upwards,  telling the bees I am coming, and I then begin at the top.
  • Take top box off and set on upturned lid.  (I have several 2×4 hive stands and extra hive lids.)
  • Take second box off and set on another upturned hive lid.
  • The third box on the bottom is indeed empty as expected- remove the box and clean off the bottom of the screened bottom board.  A winter of debris, dead bees, etc…
  • Push the removable board back in place under the screen and set the box that was on top, the first one removed, on the base.  It is the new bottom box.  I pulled out one frame and saw eggs, larvae and capped brood.  The queen is there, somewhere, and that is all I need to knowfor now.
  • The box that was on top is now the middle box.  Again, check a frame.  No brood but there is some food here.  Back in you go.
  • The top box is one I just brought up.  10 new frames of foundation.  (Disclaimer: I am much against the routine use of plastics, however, I am trying something new.  Eyesight is not what is was, and spotting eggs on light colored foundation can be a bugger.  Not to mention foundation that weakens in the honey extractor.)  We are trying out some black plastic foundation/frames.  It came lightly coated with beeswax, but I have read it is not quite enough.  Last week I melted capping wax and lightly brushed these new frames with wax.  Now as I put the foundation on the hive, I spray a little sugar water on both sides of each frame.  Both rewaxing and sugar syrup spraying were recommended ideas I read online to encourage bees to “take” to the new foundation.
  • On top of the third box go two quart jars of spring syrup with jar stands.  I nudge a black hive beetle trap loaded with olive oil between a couple frames on the top box, near the side.  A wooden “deep brood box” covers these, then the inner cover and finally the lid.
  • All three boxes for brood have 10 frames;  in honey supers, I will only put 9 frames in each box so the bees draw out the cells a wee bit further, making uncapping much easier.

The bees have had their basement cleaned, their house rearranged, new rooms added and two quarts of syrup.  I will feed them syrup until they have drawn out the foundation of the newest box, and as I do routine inspections I will rotate out the last two boxes of traditional wood/wax foundation as we go to “all black plastic.”  They did fly around but were not “pissy” or give off the alert pheromone, raising the pitch of their buzzing to a high whine.  Very well-behaved girls.

In a couple weeks the weather may be warm enough for me to give a quick “queen check.”  All I need to see are eggs or young larvae.  I will also note the progress of the foundation drawing, refilling the syrup jars as needed.  (If I do not see signs of a laying queen I will order one immediately.)

These hives are fairly small; I will not make splits from them unless the queens go crazy with laying, exploding the population to where three boxes will not be enough space.  THEN I will worry about swarming, but that is for another day…

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