A Keeper’s Year – March

by Serge Labesque

It’s time to spring into action

According to the calendar, we are reaching the end of winter. However, as I write these lines, the weather looks and feels like any season but winter! Normally, the equinox would usher in spring and one of our best honey flows for the year. But will it, this year? Will we instead see cool and wet conditions return for weeks on end or yet another prolonged dry spell, either one of which can hurt bee colonies or even bring them to the brink of starvation? Ah! If only we knew what this year’s spring has in stores for our bees…

My plan is to keep the number of colonies my apiaries hold at a relatively low count this year. Doing this will ensure that there will not be excessive competition for possibly scant available food resources. Besides this overall plan, I intend to follow my usual spring hive management protocol, as it allows the bees to act as they wish and to respond to environmental stimuli or constraints. This does not pressure them into performing more work than what they would do on their own. This approach seems to safely address most sets of weather conditions. If in the end I am overcautious, then the colonies will be thriving.

An essential aspect of this approach is to make sure that the volume and configuration of the hives are adequate. When they are, the brood chambers do not become congested and the colonies are not driven to initiate swarming or to produce queens too early. Several hive space management practices are helpful in meeting this goal and their combination is quite effective. They include increasing the volume of the brood chambers with the addition of frames, adding supers, making sure that there is ample forager clustering space between the hive entrances and the brood nests and providing comb-building opportunities. Together, they can help delay colony reproduction by several weeks. Often, this is enough time to allow the colonies to gain more strength before swarm preparations are initiated. Meanwhile the weather conditions usually improve and become favorable for the mating of the young queens that will be produced and for the development of budding colonies. In some instances, we find colonies that do not show any inclination to swarming, however, and they carry on as very strong units.

The use of queen excluders is detrimental. By placing an artificial limit on the expansion of the brood nests, these devices can lead to congestion of the brood chambers and consequently force the colonies to swarm. Queen excluders work against nature. They are totally unnecessary once the workings of bee colonies are understood by the beekeeper and counterproductive as they make it difficult for the bees to access the honey supers. I simply do not use these contraptions in the management of my hives.

The addition of empty frames to the brood chambers is quite effective and brings several benefits to the bees. The growing clusters can immediately use the space they provide. Since I use open frames with no comb or foundation, young bees eagerly build comb in these frames. As soon as some of the new comb is started, it is put to good use as egg-laying space or nectar-storage space. Early in the season, or when the colony at hand is still relatively fragile, these frames are placed alongside the brood nests. Later, when the weather becomes mild and the colonies have gained strength, the new frames may be moved to the center of the brood nests. As usual, the new frames are placed near combs that hold capped honey, pollen or brood along their top bars. This ensures that the new combs are built correctly.

Supering alone is not sufficient to significantly delay the onset of swarm preparations. The addition or expansion of honey supers is only a supplement to the above-mentioned addition of frames to the brood chambers. It provides nectar storage space and therefore helps to avoid the excessive deposition of nectar in the brood areas, which would lead to honey-bound conditions of the brood chambers.

However, and contrary to the conventional approach of supering generously, I have come to prefer adding nectar-storage space with moderation with my DD hives. This helps to maintain a crown of honey above the brood and entices the queens to stay in the double-deep brood chambers. The relocation of the lateral standard frames of honey from the brood chambers to the supers is a good complement to this manipulation, as it makes more space available to the bees in the brood chambers. At times, when there is surplus honey, harvesting some of this honey is actually a pretty good move for both the bees and the beekeeper. Since the colonies used very little of their stores during the first part of this mild winter or they were able to compensate for whatever they consumed, the upper parts and the sides of the brood chambers still hold much honey. This makes the relocation or harvest of the lateral frames of honey into the supers a particularly important point, this year, in order to open space in the brood chambers.

Forager clustering space provides shelter to the foragers during the nights, or when the weather prevents foraging. It consists of open spaces that are located between the brood nests and the hive entrances. The foragers represent one-third of the population of the hive. Since they are the colony’s older bees, they regroup with their sisters by hanging at the periphery of the cluster, and mainly below it, not in the heart of the cluster. The forager clustering space happens spontaneously in double-deep brood chamber hives or in hives that were not reversed. When this space it is not present, the foragers are forced to hang outside the hive. Often, they form a “beard” that may warn of impending swarming. If it is necessary to create this clustering space, it is easy to add a super with frames between the hive bottom and the brood chamber. I suspect that adding a few bars or frames between the hive entrances and the brood nests of horizontal hives would possibly bring similar benefits.

Together, these measures usually permit delaying colony reproduction until sometime in April or early May. Then, the colonies will have gained greater strength and the conditions will be more favorable to the production of well-mated queens and to the development of the young colonies. The manipulations that are required can be implemented at the same time the hives are inspected during late winter and early spring.

As the season of colony reproduction draws near, I perform regular inspections of the hives. Every week to ten days and weather permitting, I access the brood nests without spending any time examining in detail the honey supers or anything else. Care is taken not to chill the brood or the queens. This permits the additions that were discussed above and figuring out in a timely manner when colonies are preparing to swarm. The focus of these very brief inspections is to find young brood. A single comb that holds young brood can provide much valuable information. Large patches of contiguous eggs and young larvae that are bathing in nice puddles of royal jelly indicate that the queen is laying eggs profusely and that the nutrition of the young is satisfactory. When this is the case, the colony at hand is not preparing to swarm. If no signs of health problems or other issues are encountered, the hive is promptly closed and I make notes of the hive manipulation. The colony will be checked the following week, if possible.

On the other hand, finding only sparse open brood and large areas of sealed brood is a strong indication that the colony is preparing its queen to fly out with a swarm. When this happens, the in-hive conditions are good for queen rearing. Dividing the colony under these circumstances usually brings excellent results. The division does not have to be executed immediately unless swarm cells are present. In fact, one can wait a few more days until queen cells are built, but this is taking a chance that may lead to missing a great opportunity.

The whitening of the combs and of the inside of the hives is a delightful sight to the beekeeper. It is caused by the almost uncontrollable production of fresh wax by young bees that are well fed. It’s a sure sign that the honey flow is on and that nice new combs can be built.

With nutritious pollen and nectar aplenty, colony health is most often good at this time of year. Nonetheless and unfortunately, we may find colonies that are ailing. Indeed, there are diseases, such as chalkbrood and European foulbrood (EFB) that can appear more frequently at this time of year. For this reason, they have been called “spring or stress diseases”. Discarding safely all the contaminated combs and reducing the volume of the hives to strengthen the affected colonies can give them a good chance to recover.

The forager activity in front of the hive is becoming more intense and warrants wider entrances. The size of the hive entrances may seem like an unimportant detail, but it is in fact a hive feature that affects the colonies all day long, day after day. An opening that is too small slows the work of the foragers and reduces the influx of supplies into the hives. Kept too large, an entrance can become indefensible against robber bees or some other predators. During the spring, I gradually adjust the entrances according to the forager traffic: They are kept densely used though, but not to the point of becoming bottlenecks.

Having some spare pieces of equipment at hand to augment the volume of the hives or to divide colonies is very convenient. As part of my spring routine, I also place a few supers a little further away from the hives to serve as swarm traps. They occasionally attract swarms that are on the move.

After a few months of relative inactivity in the apiaries, it’s time to reconnect with the bees. For sure, there is a lot to do with them in the spring!

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 bees from neighbor beekeepers. Local associations can help beekeepers to connect and source bees.
  • Inspect hives regularly, on nice days, at a time when foragers are out in large numbers.
  • Observe the performance of the queens and colonies.
  • Look for young brood and signs of preparations for swarming.
  • Ensure unimpeded development of the brood nests. Add frames to provide egg-laying space and comb-building opportunities, as necessary.
  • Add supers to provide nectar storage space.
  • Make sure there is clustering space between the brood nests and the hive entrances.
  • Ensure that the hives remain adequately ventilated.
  • Remove and replace old and misshapen combs that the bees have vacated.
  • Perform the first hive divisions of the season (but only if and when the hives are ready and when weather permits!)
  • Keep the hive tops securely held in place.
  • Observe the monitoring trays, particularly for signs of brood diseases, possible chalkbrood mummies, EFB-affected larvae, or other health-related problems.
  • Gradually open the entrances of the hives to match the increasing forager activity.
  • Move equipment to the apiaries.
  • Set out and monitor swarm traps.
  • Keep some equipment at the ready to catch the occasional swarm.
  • Keep sources of water available for the bees.
  • Pull weeds from in front of the hives.
  • Clean or dispose of equipment that held colonies that failed, as appropriate.
  • Render wax from discarded frames.
  • Routinely clean and scorch tools and equipment.
  • Harvest and process rapidly only surplus early spring honey.

Serge Labesque © 2020