A Keeper’s Year — April

by Serge Labesque

April in the apiaries –

Colony multiplication

Normally, this time of year is nearly optimal for colony multiplication in this area. By now, the colonies have gained much strength since their winter low. The weather usually becomes warmer and the spring honey flow is in full swing. This is when most colonies liberally produce offspring: They raise drones and young queens, and they swarm.

The beekeepers who multiply their colonies when so many favorable conditions come together can obtain very good results. But the calendar alone is not a good reason to divide colonies willy-nilly. Instead, it’s advisable to first inspect the hives and watch what the bees are doing to figure out when they are ready for propagation. Clear signs are found inside the brood nests: A strong warning is the sudden reduction in the production of young brood along with an abundance of sealed brood. When this is noticed there are still a few days before the colony issues a swarm and we have time to prepare for the division of the colony. Finding swarm cells, however, is a reason to act immediately.

Although the bees make the best they can out of any situation they are placed in, dividing colonies that are not preparing to propagate usually stretches their capabilities and leads to mediocre outcomes, if not to failures. There are in fact circumstances when the division of colonies should not be considered, such as when the colonies are diseased or weak, when they are in a state of poor nutrition, or during queen supersedure, for example.

Between weekly spring hive inspections, the colonies grow amazingly fast. As we monitor our colonies, we may also marvel at the whitening of the combs and at the nectar that dribbles out of the cells. These signs of a generous spring honeyflow lead us to supplement the inspections of the brood nests with a rapid examination of the contents of the honey supers. We may find that it is necessary to add empty frames or supers. Harvesting some surplus honey may also be possible and actually advantageous, as this can help keep the hives within easily manageable dimensions. The addition of supers is quite effective, particularly when bottom supering is practiced. This consists of placing new supers directly above the brood chambers and under any supers that were installed previously. Baiting the bees with frames of honey removed from the previous supers is quite helpful in inviting the bees to move into the new space and in maintaining crowns of honey above the brood nests.

If the spring bloom can provide good nutrition for the colonies and possibly some surplus honey, these are not the only benefits that may be realized during this honeyflow. In such conditions young bees produce much wax and they can build nice new combs. This is an opportunity not to be missed, as it allows us to replace the old and misshapen combs that have been taken out of service. Fully and nicely built combs facilitate the manipulation of the hives. Their production helps to delay or control swarming and to ensure better colony health by replacing with fresh beeswax the old wax that may carry pathogens and toxic compounds.

On occasion, swarms that are captured or that settled into our equipment may have to be relocated and given permanent homes. They will begin to show their true colors in two or three months, possibly after superseding their original queens,.

Thanks to good spring nutrition, most colonies are vigorous and healthy at this time of year. Unfortunately, there are some that may be lagging or diseased. Chalkbrood and European foulbrood seem to be the causes of the most frequent incidences of health problems during the spring. Weak and diseased colonies benefit from the drastic reduction of the volume of their hives and from the removal of all contaminated combs. Queen-related issues are easily corrected in a variety of ways, which include using young brood from a healthy colony to allow queenless hives to raise new queens, transferring queen cells, hive combination, or introducing young queens that were raised separately.

A few minutes are to be spent cutting or pulling the grass that grows in front of the hives, as it may hinder the work of the foragers.

That’s the plan for my normal April beekeeping routine. What will be left of it after this challenging March weather and the constraints we are subjected to because of the Covid-19 pandemic restrictions remains to be seen. Even though we may have to curtail our efforts to keep up with the bees during this critical time of year, we should not worry too much about the colonies. Trust the bees. They’ll be alright.

In summary, this month:

  • I highly encourage all beekeepers NOT to order, buy or bring in package bees, nucs or queens from outside our immediate area! Instead, arrange to obtain bees from neighbor beekeepers.
  • Inspect the hives regularly. Focus your attention on the open brood (eggs and young larvae) for signs of colony preparation for swarming and of possible health issues.
  • Ensure unimpeded development of the brood nests. Add frames to provide egg-laying space and comb-building opportunities.
  • Add frames and supers to provide nectar storage space.
  • Ensure the presence of clustering space between the brood nests and the hive entrances.
  • Perform hive divisions when the colonies are initiating their preparations for swarming.
  • Rear a few queens from your best stock.
  • Observe the monitoring trays, particularly for signs of brood diseases, chalkbrood mummies, EFB-affected larvae or other health-related problems.
  • Gradually open the entrances of the hives to match the increasing forager activity.
  • Harvest only surplus early spring honey, making sure to leave enough honey in the hives for the bees (20 lb. being adequate for a mature colony at this time of year).
  • Monitor the swarm traps that were set out.
  • Requeen or combine overwintered hives that are not performing satisfactorily, and those that have failing queens.
  • Keep some equipment at the ready to catch the occasional swarm.
  • Maintain sources of water for the bees.
  • Remove weeds from in front of the hives.
  • Discard old and misshapen combs.
  • Render wax from discarded frames.
  • Routinely clean and scorch tools and equipment.

Serge Labesque © 2020