A Keeper’s Year – February

Serge Labesque+

Colony build-up

Bees toil all year long to keep their colonies thriving. But mid- to late-winter brings them particularly intense workloads and taxing weather conditions. This statement holds true even without considering the dreadful conditions imposed upon the millions of colonies that are trucked from all over the country to the California almond groves. And yet, most colonies perform the remarkable feat of enlarging considerably during these testing winter weeks.

At this time of year, the queens are producing increasing quantities of eggs. Consequently, the brood nests become larger every day. The brood they hold has to be fed and kept warm. To achieve these tasks, the nurse bees consume more of the stores. In turn, this consumption of honey and bee bread frees cells that the queens use to lay even more eggs. The result is a combined escalation in brood production and stores depletion. Exacerbating the challenges presented to the colonies is that this happens when the adult bee populations of the hives have dropped to their minimum for the year and at a time when the weather can be quite unstable and harsh, sometimes precluding foraging for several days at a time.

When the needs of the developing brood for food and warmth are not satisfied, the future of the colony as a whole is threatened. During cold periods, when the cluster contracts, enough resources need to be available to the bees in the combs that are near the brood nest. Otherwise, the bees may become separated from the stores and perish from starvation. Indeed, it’s a lot of hard work for the aging winter bees as they dedicate the rest of their lives to nurturing the future generation. Fortunately, new bees that are beginning to emerge from the brood nests in large numbers join their older sisters in their effort to help the colonies build up in preparation for spring.

All this winter activity is to be expected for the hives in this area. Since it takes six weeks for an egg to become a forager, the bees that will supply the colonies with nectar and pollen during an April bloom must be nurtured in late February. The appropriate timing and rapidity of the brood nest development in mid-winter is without any doubt one of the most important traits that denote the level of adaptation of the colonies to their local conditions.

All the beekeeper has to do is to ensure the equipment in use does not limit the development of the colonies. However, once the mid-winter hive volume increase that was discussed last month has been provided, there is usually no need to open the hives until spring arrives. The brood nests are not inspected at this time of year, as the colonies are still fragile. The risks of chilling the brood or queens would be too high. However, telltale clues of the in-hive activity may be observed at the hive entrances and in the debris that accumulates on the monitoring trays. The intense bee metabolic activity also produces water vapor that condenses on the cold surfaces of the hive. These mist-like deposits, which may also become visible on the trays, are a gauge of the vigor of the colonies.

When the weather allows the bees to fly we can take great pleasure in observing some of the foragers returning with brightly colored pollen pellets on their hind legs. Others are coming back to the hives with visibly heavy loads, too, their abdomen low and somewhat translucent as their honey crops are distended by nectar or water. “Water collection in winter?” you may ask. Certainly, yes, but at this time of year it is not to cool the nests. It’s to dilute honey for the larvae and to maintain adequate levels of relative humidity in the brood nest areas. These fresh supplies further stimulate brood rearing.

If there are still some pieces of equipment to purchase, fabricate, clean or repair, there is no time to waste, as spring may be only a few weeks away. It’s time to start moving equipment to the yards, too. I stack mine in look-alike hives in order to have it at the ready for hive expansion and divisions. On occasion, swarms have moved into these inviting nesting cavities. They were welcome distractions from the planned routine apiary work. I also set up a few swarm traps as additional open invitations to bees in search of a new home. These are assembled from unused and older pieces of equipment, and they are placed further away from the apiaries.

This year, I continued monitoring my colonies for mites through the fall and winter on a monthly basis. As with anything we do to track the lives of our bees, these tests contributed additional information about the colonies and helped in my selection of which ones will be used preferentially for multiple splits or to produce additional queens during the spring.

By the end of the month, the colonies will be ready for spring, which for the beekeeper is arguably the most interesting and busiest time of the year in the apiaries. That will be the season of colony multiplication, queen production, and hopefully, a good and nutritious first honey flow. Winter, this far, has been mild and moist enough to possibly lead to a very exciting spring in the apiaries. Rain or shine, the bees will be ready!

In summary, this month:

  • I highly encourage all beekeepers NOT to order, buy or bring in package bees, nucs and queens from outside their immediate area! Instead, arrange to obtain local bees from neighbor beekeepers. Your local beekeepers’ association will be happy to put you in touch with a beekeeper in your immediate area.
  • Inspect the exterior of the hives:
  • Verify that hive tops are still properly set and secured and that the hive entrances remain unobstructed.
  • Observe the landing boards and the ground in front of the hives.
  • On nice days, observe the flight paths and the bee activity. Adjust the entrance reducers, if necessary, to facilitate the forager traffic.
  • Make sure the upper ventilation slots are open to prevent the accumulation of metabolic moisture inside the hives.
  • Examine the debris on the monitoring trays.
  • Early in the month, on a sunny, windless day, perform cursory inspections of only the upper part of the hives.
  • Provide additional hive volume: Place supers with a few frames of empty drawn comb and follower boards. Add frames alongside the clusters.
  • Take care of or dispose appropriately of any equipment that held colonies that failed, as warranted.
  • Build and repair beekeeping equipment.
  • Plan for spring.
  • Set up swarm traps.
  • Plant bee forage.

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