Early Season Manoeuvers

Pussy willow (Salix family)

What do people do with their bees in March in the UK? Not much! Everyone is different, and bees, climate and available forage vary enormously from place to place. Crocuses are blooming, snowdrops are still about, and pussy willow is doing its thing. Plymouth, Aberystwith, Belfast and Perth expect a maximum temperature of 12-13 degrees Celsius (55 deg F) over the forthcoming week. However, Cambridge and Reading will be warmer at 16-17 degrees (62 deg F), and some may feel the urge to inspect colonies. It’s an urge best ignored, in my opinion.

Crossover point

It’s annoying having to say “it depends” so often, but that’s the way it is. There are differences, and not just in the weather. Different colonies come out of winter at different strengths. Some queens get on with laying as soon as possible, and some take their time. Also, many of the older bees that kept everything going through the winter are dying off. A crossover point arrives around now when the number of bees in the colony starts to grow again after months of decline.

Boost the small ones?

It’s easy to assume that a small colony is rubbish and not worth its place in the apiary. Even a prolific queen will struggle in such a colony because it is futile to lay more eggs than the bees can care for. I have seen Ian Steppler place a strong box of bees on top of a weak one, with an excluder between them. That’s two colonies, two queens and lots more bees in one than the other. What happens is that the bee numbers tend to equalise, allowing the queen in the smaller colony to lay more, if she’s any good. You wouldn’t want to do that if the weaker one was sick. Another way to achieve the same result is to swap the positions of a strong and a weak hive. The smaller colony gets an instant bee boost allowing the queen to strut her stuff, and the loss of bees in the larger one may help curb early swarming.

Feeding

The only thing I’m doing with my bees at the moment is checking their weight to see if any need feeding. Plus, of course, marvelling at how busy they are when it warms up. I feel a sense of pride and wonder when I see them bringing in yellow bundles of pollen (willow, I think) – nearly all of the queens in my hives have come from my queen rearing efforts. Maybe they will be super bees that never swarm or sting and make tons of honey – the optimism of early-season knows no bounds! I didn’t use mouse guards this year but now seems as good a time as any to remove them.

Some people will have boosted their bees by feeding protein supplements around mid-February. I have never done that, so I have no way of knowing from personal experience whether or not that’s a good idea. Yesterday, at our Stockport BKA meeting, we had a talk from Seb at Vita, who had a vested interest in promoting the use of bee feed. He made some interesting points nonetheless, so maybe I’ll try that one day to see what happens. My goal has always been to feed enough in autumn to get the bees safely into spring without needing anything more, but generally, we think about sugar when considering bee food. Presumably, a lack of pollen going into winter or coming out of it would hold the bees back.

Wide range of colony size

I often wonder what causes the wide range of colony sizes in spring; some bees cover most of the frames, others only three or four, yet they went into winter at similar strength. Top candidates for smaller colonies are varroa, maybe nosema, bee type, and nutrition (related to environment and weather). Oh, a missing queen or drone layer too.

First inspection in April

At some point, usually in April for me, the time for the first inspection arrives. I scrape floors clean or change them, maybe rotate out some ancient combs & quickly check that there is healthy brood, including eggs. On double brood colonies, I reverse the boxes; this season, if I do that, I will put an excluder between them – I’m going to run singles. If it’s doing well, I may add a super over the single brood box instead. Having observed many UK bee farmers, I suspect double Langstroth is a bit over the top.

Some people treat for mites in spring, but I don’t. I do mite counts in June to identify any that I should have treated in spring, but ordinarily, oxalic acid in winter knocks the mites right down. Honey bees are capable of incredible expansion between April and June. Theoretically, with young queens selected from low swarming stock, the provision of ample space for bees should help prevent swarming. The table and chart below show a year in the life of one of my good colonies. Note that the queen’s laying rate peaks at about 1,500 per day rather than the 2,000 often quoted. I think 2,000 eggs per day is less common than many people believe.

Colony size through the year
Colony size through the year

This colony had its lowest population on 1st March (marked blue) and reached peak size by mid-June (marked orange). In five laying cycles, they surged from 6 frames of bees to 26 (brood frame size equivalent), and that’s Langstroth, not National. They need a brood box plus three supers to house the bees by mid-June. In National kit, that equates to a brood box plus four supers, or two brood boxes and three supers.

Graphic representation showing bees and brood

When to super?

If it’s a good colony, they need a super at that first inspection. On 1st April, this colony had four frames of brood and over eight of bees, but a fortnight later, it’s five frames of brood and eleven of bees – as the Langstroth only has ten frames, that’s overcrowded and likely to swarm. Translating into Nationals, it would be five frames of brood with eleven of bees on 1st April – clearly in need of space straight away. You have to stay ahead of the bees, which can mean adding a super every two weeks during their growth spurt.

I’m excited about the season ahead. I’m painting boxes and waxing frames to have the equipment ready when I need it. There’s not much to do right now, but it won’t be long until I’m running around like a crazy person.

Walrus

Currently writing a book called "Interviews with Beekeepers"

2 thoughts on “Early Season Manoeuvers

  1. Elaine Robinson

    Hi Steve, good summary, at what weight if stores left do you decide to add fondant?

    • Hi Elaine – nothing very scientific I’m afraid. I lift nucs off their stand and feed any that feel light. With hives I tilt the top box. I also sometimes pull a couple of frames to see if there’s any honey on them if I’m unsure. Mainly feed lighter ones in February & by now it’s seeing if they need a top up ( they didn’t). If they get fondant it’s a big chunk (2-4kg) back in Feb which seems to last. The really light ones are usually dead!

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