I’m writing this on 19th February and my bees are based in Cheshire, UK, just south of Manchester. We have a mild climate, without extremes of cold in winter nor extremes of heat in summer, although that might be changing. I have snowdrops and crocuses in flower in my garden, and it won’t be long until my gorgeous magnolia tree bursts into bloom. As far as I’m concerned, this is early spring. There is a temptation to think that the season has started, and there are things to do, but ripping every frame out of a colony to see what they are up to is not one of them. Spring Fever: Beekeeping Activities For The New Season is to show what I do with my bees over the coming weeks.
I had a reminder recently of how a few hundred miles north or south makes a huge difference to the conditions our bees experience. David Evans gave my Association an interesting and entertaining talk about bait hives on Zoom, and by way of introduction described his location, on the beautiful west coast of Scotland. He is in one of the few ‘varroa free’ places in the UK, which must be lovely, but he also has a shorter season with plenty of weather coming in from the Atlantic. His bees will be a few weeks behind mine, as mine are behind my brother’s down in Oxfordshire. The adage about beekeeping by conditions rather than a date on a calendar holds true for all of us.
The story so far
I went around all of my hives in mid-December applying VarroMed, a trickle treatment containing solutions of both oxalic and formic acids. As I didn’t pull frames out, I can’t be sure that they were broodless, but it seemed like about the right time. That was the first time I’d seen my bees since late September. I was able to check on their weight, and whether they were alive. My losses at that point were three hives and one nuc. Two had starved, one because a mouse had got in, and the others had queen problems. Last year I did have an issue with some hives not accepting newly introduced queens, then making their own, which got poorly mated (or not mated at all), so colonies dwindled away. I think I was re-queening too late in the season. So, that’s just under 10% losses so far.
I then returned to check on all colonies a week ago, to see if any needed feeding. No more losses, although there’s still time. Some colonies with bees in may yet turn out to have drone laying queens or laying workers; I will find out when I actually inspect the hives. I even found a tiny colony that I didn’t know about; they were in a stack of mini-plus mating hives.
Feeding fondant and dead outs
Assuming that you did your job in autumn and made sure that colonies going into winter were heavy with stores with low levels of varroa mites, the majority of early spring is a bit of a non-event. I ‘cleaned up’ the few dead outs that I found in winter; not properly, but frames of dead bees were removed and floors scraped. No point leaving them there to fester for any longer than necessary. When I get my new Api Melter, I’ll be rendering wax from such frames, but this time I chucked them onto the fire (gasp!).
I tilt hives by lifting them from the back to feel how heavy they are, and any that seem light, that are still alive, get some fondant. The light ones stood out easily; most were still heavy, especially those on double brood. Some beekeepers take a ‘belt and braces’ approach and feed fondant regardless of weight, as a form of security blanket. That’s fine, but it isn’t what I do because it would be a waste – what’s the point of feeding all that syrup in autumn if you’re going to feed them fondant anyway? It can get expensive, especially the way prices have taken off in the last year. ‘Proper’ beekeepers, with numerous colonies, often weigh their hives to track the consumption of stores. This approach is more reliable than hefting, as long as equipment is standardised.
My fondant this year is something I bought through our Association, sourced from Modern Beekeeping called ‘Apipasta’. Odd name, but I really like it because it stays soft. Many of the other types that I have tried go rock hard in the cold and need to be warmed up in the microwave. It would make good queen candy for caged queens. I normally cut a piece out of the plastic bag containing the fondant and place it directly on the tops of the frames where the bees are. I can overturn a poly feeder to provide space for it, or add an empty super.
Eight colonies got fondant; four hives and four nucs. That’s half of my nucs and 14% of my full-sized hives. The hungry hives often have plenty of bees along the tops of the frames of the top box, but poly hives can look like that anyway, even when quite heavy. There is an obvious difference between timber and poly hives in the winter; the former are mainly in a cluster whereas the poly hives have bees wandering about all over the place, except when it’s freezing outside.
My weather app tells me that the current mild conditions are going to change; a cold spell is on the way. This is normal for spring. We get periods of mild weather followed by cold; sometimes even snow. That’s why I try to leave the bees alone, apart from feeding the ones that would otherwise starve. I’ll be picking up some more of that Apipasta stuff at the forthcoming beekeeping trade show in Telford. I’m hoping to buy another bee suit, collect my mega-expensive Api melter and probably grab a few other bits and pieces.
Anyway, jobs. If I had used mouse guards, I’d be removing them over the coming weeks. Those hives that got fondant may need more before any nectar is coming into the hives; you have to keep up the feeding once you start, until a flow arrives (mid-April, probably). Other than that, I’m leaving bees alone.
Apart from buying stuff at trade shows, the next beekeeping jobs for me and the mole are to clean and sterilise boxes, using a blow torch on timber and bleach on polystyrene. I have ordered some scaffold base jacks and the plastic mats that they rest on in the hope that I can make some better hive stands. The hive stand is not something many people think about until it rots, and your bee hive falls over. Then, suddenly, hive stands become fascinating. I keep trying different things. Hopefully, a double hive stand with four legs made from scaffold bases, which have adjustable heights using a screw thread, will be the answer. There will also be tasks such as putting foundation into frames to do.
Actual beekeeping – staying ahead
In six weeks I will be able to start beekeeping proper, actually inspecting frames and adding space if needed. The first inspection is to clean or change the floors and to carefully check the bees and brood for any signs that something might be wrong. Colonies in smaller boxes, such as nucs, could be needing additional space by then. The main job over the rest of spring and into summer is to stay ahead of the bees by ensuring that the queen has space to lay, and the hive is big enough for the rapidly expanding population. But we are not there yet.