Your First Year
Unlike most calendars, this one starts the beekeeper’s year in June. Assuming you are new to your hobby, this is around the time you will have received your first nucleus. Although you will need to manage your hive throughout the year, there will be certain times when your intervention is limited because once the bees have formed their winter cluster your internal inspections will have to stop. Your main concern during the colder months is to check on the food stores, which is done by a process referred to as “hefting”.
As a beekeeper, your main aim is to keep the bees happy, ensuring they have plenty of food and space and that the conditions are right to keep the colony healthy and strong—damp is a killer.
This section of the book is intended as a guideline to help you plan the year ahead after you have received your first colony of bees. It gives you tasks to carry out month by month and will assist in building your confidence when it comes to handling the bees. Regular inspections will teach you to quickly recognize the mood of the colony and spot whether there are any problems such as disease.
The calendar will also cover swarming and robbing, which can be another major concern; these can introduce disease to your colony of bees. It will give you guidelines on what and when to feed, the way to cope when the nectar flow is at its height, and how to identify the right time to start extracting the honey.
You have just picked up your first nucleus of bees, and you have made sure that everything is ready to receive them. You have bought a bee suit to protect yourself, and you have the correct tools on hand. Once you have allowed your bees to become accustomed to their new location, move the frames from the nucleus into the hive.
Because you are starting with a small colony, which will not have had time to build up any stores, it will be necessary to feed the bees with sugar syrup. Mix up the syrup, place the upturned feeder bucket into the crown board, and close the hive. Now you will need to leave the bees alone for the first few days so that they can get on with their job of increasing the colony. Do not attempt to carry out your first inspection until nine days have elapsed.
It is essential to provide a supply of water, especially if it is a particularly dry June. Without water, the bees will not be able to continue looking after their brood and storing honey. In hot weather, bees use water to help keep the colony cool; they collect it and spread it throughout the colony in tiny droplets. They then fan their wings to create a draught of air over the top of the water droplets. This causes the water to evaporate, which helps to bring down the temperature within the nesting areas. They also use water to dilute the honey to feed the bee larvae. Place some water in a shallow dish near the entrance of the hive and replenish it as necessary.
June can be a difficult time for bees because of what is known as the “June gap.” Spring flowers are largely over and summer-flowering annuals and perennials may not yet have started to bloom. You can help your bees through this period by planting shrubs such as cotoneaster and pyracantha, which can fill the gap by providing a source of nectar during this period.
After your bees have been in their new hive for nine days, you can carry out your first inspection. This section recaps the things you should be looking out for:
- that your queen is healthy and is laying eggs
- that the brood is growing at different stages in the cells within the brood box
- that there are no visible signs of disease or pests
- that the floor of the hive is clean
- that there are signs the foragers have been out collecting nectar and pollen, and some cells are being used for storage
HOW TO WORK SAFELY AROUND BEES
If you are new to beekeeping and you still feel a little nervous about working around your colony, follow this simple set of guidelines to minimize the risk of being stung or, indeed, causing injury to your bees.
Sometimes it is necessary to supplement the bees’ stores. This can be done with either heavy sugar syrup or a light syrup. Heavy syrup is given to bees to help them prepare for winter, while the light syrup activates the bees in spring because it can simulate a nectar flow. Candy is fed to bees when the weather is too cold for them to cope with the amount of water in the syrups. Take care when feeding any of the above because it can excite the bees and disturb their winter cluster. To make the syrups, heat the mixture until all the sugar crystals have dissolved.
SPRING: Light syrup
2¼ lb. white sugar to 2 pints water
AUTUMN: Heavy syrup 4½ lb. white sugar to 2 pints water
- Remember not to wear perfume, aftershave, deodorant, hairspray, or anything else that is highly scented. The smell will upset the bees and increase the risk of them becoming angry.
- If your hive is under or near a tree, check that there is nothing that is likely to fall on you or the hive before starting your inspection.
- If possible, have an experienced beekeeper with you when you carry out your first inspection.
- Make sure your smoker has plenty of fuel and that it is smoking well before embarking on your inspection. Do not leave the smoker anywhere that it is likely to start a fire, like dry grass for example.
- Check that your clothing is bee-proof and that there are no gaps or folds that bees can crawl into without you realizing.
- If you find that your bees are particularly aggressive on the day of inspection, increase the amount of smoke on both the bees and yourself, close the roof, and walk away. Wait for a day when they are calmer.
- Do not stand directly in front of the hive entrance—always keep to one side. From time to time, give the entrance a puff of smoke.
- If you feel distressed at any point, calmly walk away from the situation. Bees are very sensitive to human behavior, so if you cause them alarm, they will punish you for it.
This is the month to look out for robber bees. As the name suggests, a robber bee is not a member of the colony but is an invader attempting to steal the honey stores. The best way to spot if your hive is being robbed is to watch the entrance. If you see bees that are making hurried movements and look as though they are expecting to be attacked, you can be certain that these are robbers.
If your colony is strong, there should be no danger of robbing— only the weak colonies are vulnerable. Make sure you keep the area around the hive clean, do not allow sugar syrup to drip on the floor, and never leave honeycombs exposed for any length of time because this will encourage robbers. If you do suspect robbing, partially close up the entrance with some dried grass so that the guard bees do not have such a large area to defend. A strong colony should be able to defend itself adequately, so robbers invading your hive is usually a sign that something is wrong.
Adding a Super
Your bees have been installed in your hive for a month now, and you may want to add a super. If the bees have worked their way across all the frames in the original brood box, it is time to add a super on top of it in order to give the bees room to expand and start new honey stores.
Before putting the super on, place a queen excluder on top of the brood box because this will stop the queen from going any farther up the hive. When the bees start to fill the new frames, you may need to add more supers so that as much honey as possible is made—some for you and some for the bees
The art of good hive management is knowing when to add new foundation, and this is a task that is often neglected by novice beekeepers. With time, wax foundation can become damaged or start to discolor and even go black, which might indicate that a disease is present within the colony. This is a sure sign that you need to change your foundation.
By adding fresh foundation to the brood box and super, you will be encouraging the bees to create their new hexagonal cells, which will help to keep diseases at bay. You can buy foundation from a supplier of beekeeping equipment. If possible, buy organic so that you know it does not come with any added chemicals.
Foundation is made from clean beeswax, free of disease, which has been pressed into flat sheets. Each sheet is embossed with the imprint of the bottom of a cell which can be either worker or drone size.
Before beekeeping became more sophisticated, foundation was made from wax only. Most modern foundation has wires added for stability and to help prevent the center from falling out on a hot day or when the foundation is put into a honey extractor. However, if you wish to extract your honey as pure honeycomb, it is advisable to use unwired foundation instead. You will need to buy foundation that fits the size of your frames.
Alternatively, you could have a go at making foundation yourself. While the method might sound complicated, it is in fact relatively simple, although it does require both time and patience. For details of homemade foundation, see the instructions on the next paragraphs.
Making Your Own Foundation
The only specialized piece of equipment you will need is an embossed foundation roller, which can be purchased from a specialist supplier of beekeeping equipment. Alternatively, you may be able to borrow one from a fellow apiarist.
- Melt some clean beeswax either in an electric wax melter or, carefully, on the top of your stove.
- Take some precut wooden boards of the correct dimensions to fit the size of your frame and then dip them in the melted wax.
- Now cool the waxed boards in cold water.
- Peel the sheets of wax away from both sides of the boards.
- Run the wax sheets through the embossing roller.This will imprint the sheets with the hexagonal shape that the bees form naturally in their honeycomb.
- Trim the wax sheets with scissors as necessary and fix them into a frame using the wedge bar and three nails.
On your next inspection, check that the queen is still in residence and is continuing to lay. Inspect the frames in the super to see if the bees have filled more than half of them; if so, now is the time to add a new one. This means they will have plenty of honey to last them through the winter months.
Do not expect to harvest any honey in your first year because the bees are going to require plenty in order to keep the colony strong and healthy.
Make sure your bees are free of disease (particularly from varroa mite) and if you are in any doubt. Continue to watch out for robber bees.
Make sure you are keeping your records up to date—you will need to refer to these next year so that you can see how your colony has expanded during your first season as a beekeeper.
The Eviction of Drones
Toward the end of the month, you may start to notice that the drones (see blog 15–16) are being herded toward the margins of the hive. The reason for this is that as the end of summer approaches, the drones are driven toward the edge of the brood area and are eventually expelled from the hive altogether. However, as the climate is changing all over the world and autumn flowers such as goldenrod and wild aster are beginning to bloom earlier than their usual season, the behavior of bees is also starting to change. The eviction of drones, which used to be at the end of summer to the beginning of autumn, is sometimes taking place later in the year.
But why are the drones evicted from the hive before winter? The reason is that they are quite distinct from the worker bees and do not share any of the same functions. The drone could be described as a highly specialized piece of machinery used for mating with the queen. They cannot help with the construction of the hive, nursing of the larvae, or indeed gathering the nectar. The only time their jobs overlap is in controlling the temperature within the hive. The drone is also completely defenseless because he has no stinger, so he is no use in defending the hive against any predators.
The drone’s role is complicated within the community: even though he is critical for the continuation of the species, he is not wanted in the community during the colder months because he would consume valuable winter stores without making any contribution to the general running of the hive. Because the drones are unable to feed themselves, keeping them supplied would also put extra pressure on the worker bees. Consequently, in the interests of the survival of the species, the drones are expelled.
In 1851, an American clergyman named Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth discovered something called “bee space.” He found that if you left sufficient space between frames for two bees to pass one another—three-eighths inch—they would fill this space with soft wax comb instead of the hard propolis. This discovery led to greatly increased yields of honey, more control over the honeycombs, and subsequently healthier colonies. Today the most widely used commercial beehive is the Langstroth.
The nights are getting cooler, the sun is losing some of its heat, and the bees are making their first preparations for winter. Your priority this month is to check that they have built up enough supplies of honey to see them through until spring. An average colony of bees will need as much as forty pounds of stores for the winter. You should be able to estimate how much they have according to the type of hive you are using: for example, each standard frame in a National hive holds about four and a half pounds of honey.
Make your inspection in the first week of this month and check if there are any capped stores in the super or supers. If you notice that the super above the brood box is less than two-thirds full, you will need to place a feeder containing heavy sugar syrup on the hive. Heat the mixture carefully until all the sugar crystals have dissolved completely. Use an upturned bucket feeder in the crown board and check a couple of times a week to make sure it does not need topping up. You will find that bees can empty a one gallon feeder in two days if the supply of nectar is short, and as they will only take what they require, you do not need to worry about inadvertently overfeeding them. This type of feeding should be carried out until the first week in October. If they stop taking the syrup, you can remove the feeder.
Check the floor of your hive regularly for varroa mites (see infobox on next paragraph) and treat appropriately.
Make sure you fill out your records with the exact amount of feeding, how many frames are full of stores, the state of the brood box, whether you have spotted the queen, and the general health and well-being of the colony.
Sugar Shake Method
The sugar shake method is a good way to determine the extent of varroa mite infestation. For this, you will need:
- a small measuring cup
- a wide-mouthed glass jar
- a piece of light metal mesh
- powdered sugar
- a plastic or cardboard box
- a backing sheet
- a light-colored tray
- Select a brood frame that is covered in bees.
- Examine the frame carefully to see if the queen is present. If she is, return her to the hive.
- Shake the bees from the frame into the plastic or cardboard box.
- Try to get the bees to huddle in one corner by knocking the corner of the box on its side.
- Scoop half a cup of the bees and place them into the wide-mouthed jar. Cover the jar with the mesh lid.
- Add 2 tablespoons of powdered sugar to the jar through the mesh lid.
- Keeping the jar in an upright position, shake it from side to side to make sure that the bees are thoroughly coated in sugar.
- Turn the jar upside down and shake over the top of the tray, moving the jar around so that the sugar and mites are spread evenly over the surface.
- Count the number of mites on the tray, making a record of how many you have found, and repeat the process. Continue shaking and counting until no more mites are visible.
- Tip the bees from the jar back into the hive and close the roof.
- If you find more than fifty mites, treat your colony.
- The best time to treat your bees is between harvesting honey and preparing your bees for winter.
COMBINING WEAK HIVES
For beekeepers who have more than one hive, fall is the time to consider combining them if you notice one colony is becoming weak or has failed to build up enough supplies to get them through the winter. By combining a weak hive with a stronger hive, you can maintain a good cluster size, which means the colony will have a better chance of survival during the winter. You will need to incorporate the bees from the hive with the weak queen into a hive that has a strong, healthy queen. The old, weak queen should be removed and destroyed, leaving you with one strong colony.
The best way to combine two hives is as follows:
- Open the hive with the healthy queen, lay a sheet of newspaper over it, and make some slits in the paper. The bees will gradually eat their way through, which gives them time to adjust to the combination. This means there will be less fighting, and the bees from the weaker colony will come to accept their new queen.
- Dispose of the weak queen and place the brood box with the bees from this colony on top of the newspaper-covered brood box.
- Leave everything undisturbed for at least two days, by which time the two colonies should have accepted each other.
- Remove the top brood box, first, making sure you have brushed all the bees into the bottom brood box.
- Close the hive and leave the bees to unite and settle.
By spring you should have a healthy colony because there will be sufficient bees to maintain the winter cluster and a strong, healthy queen to fill the brood box as the weather starts to warm again.
During this month, you need to remove the syrup feeder because it could stimulate the bees to raise brood too early. If you want to make sure they have emergency rations, you can always place some sugar candy, or fondant, inside the hive—see below for recipe.
To feed the candy to the bees, simply place two and one-quarter pounds in a freezer bag and make several holes in the bottom. Place the bag, pierced side down, over one of the holes in the crown board on the hive and the bees will take this type of food when it is needed.
Recipe For Sugar Candy
To make the sugar candy, heat 4½ lbs. sugar in 1 pint water until it reaches 243°F on a sugar thermometer. Then cool the pan in cold water, combining the syrup that is cooling on the edges of the pan with the warm syrup in the middle. As the temperature reaches 158°F, the mixture should start to go cloudy. Immediately pour it into prepared pots before it sets hard.
If you have been treating your hive for varroa mites, make sure you do not leave any chemical strips in the hive longer than is recommended by the manufacturers.
If you are storing any frames (full or empty), protect them against wax moth.
Reducing the Entrance
October is the time to reduce the size of the entrance to the hive— though it is not just in the autumn that you should consider this. The dimensions of the entrance should be altered when necessary to cope with the size and strength of the colony within. Ideally, the entrance hole should be just large enough to avoid congestion during the busiest part of the day. In the height of summer, when the nectar flow is at its highest, the hole should be full size to allow for the continual coming and going of the bees on their foraging flights. However, a new nucleus or a weakened colony needs its entrance hole reduced so that the smaller number of bees can guard the hive successfully.
During winter when the bee traffic is considerably lighter, the entrance should be of a size to allow only one bee to pass through at a time. This means it will require fewer guards on duty so that the bees can do more productive jobs within the hive. If the entrance is not reduced and there are not enough bees on guard, it is an open invitation to neighboring bees to rob your colony’s winter stores.
The second reason for reducing the hole in October is to bar entry to mice and other rodents that will be looking for a sheltered place in which to take cover as the weather turns colder. A mouse can squeeze through a very small hole, which is why you will sometimes find wooden reducers referred to as “mouse guards.” These are available to purchase from bee equipment suppliers and come in various sizes to suit the type of hive you have chosen. A determined mouse can chew through a piece of wood; therefore, the best type of mouse guard is a simple galvanized metal strip with two rows of holes in it, usually one-third inch in size, which are just large enough to allow the bees through. This can be easily attached to the floor of the hive entrance using ordinary thumbtacks.
Unless the weather is unusually mild, your bees will have gone into their winter cluster by now (see next blog). As there will be no further need for thorough inspections, use the time to make repairs on any equipment that has been damaged, assemble new equipment for the next season, and check that your stored frames are secure from wax moths and mice.
Examine the reduced entrance hole to check that it has not become blocked by dead bees. While frequent bee death is to be expected, if the living bees cannot exit the hive, you may lose your whole colony.
Make sure your hive is secure against any bad weather and that it cannot be blown over during a strong wind. Positioning the hive against a strong fence or a wall will give it added stability and shelter.
The Importance of Ventilation
The biggest threat to a colony of bees is damp, so the need to take adequate precautions against it occurring can’t be overemphasized. In the winter months, good ventilation is very important. As the temperature drops at night, the cold night air mixes with the warmth of the hive, and moisture can condense on the inside cover, forming drips that can fall onto the bees. If the bees get wet, they become chilled and have no means of warming themselves rapidly enough. Your hive must have a ventilation crack in the upper part to allow water vapor to escape—a one-eighth-inch crack at the front of the inner cover is sufficient. Anything larger than this can allow either a robber bee or rain to enter the hive.
EXPLAINING THE WINTER CLUSTER
The term “winter cluster” describes the way in which a bee colony survives the cold weather and absence of fresh supplies of nectar. With the eviction of the drones, the colony will have been reduced to about ten thousand bees—the size of your original nucleus. Having this many bees in the colony at the start of the winter is essential so that they can maintain a tight cluster around the queen. From late autumn to spring, the queen will stop laying (or will lay only a few eggs) and it is up to the worker bees to keep her healthy enough to survive and produce the next season’s progeny.
The bees huddle together in a large group, continually swapping places from the cold outer edges to the warmer center of the cluster, where a temperature of ninety to ninety-three degrees is maintained. During this time, they keep up their strength by surviving on the stores they have built up in the summer, and your role over the winter is to make sure that they have sufficient stores to last. Most of the bees now remaining in the colony were those born in late fall, and they will survive until the spring, when a new batch of bees will take over the management of the hive. There will, of course, be some deaths, but these bodies will be dragged outside the hive, so do not be surprised if you see a few dead bees during the winter months.
You may also see a few bees flying around just outside the hive if the weather is relatively mild. These are cleansing flights, when the bees take the chance to stretch their wings and defecate, since they need to keep the inside of the hive clean to avoid risk of contamination.
WHAT IS HEFTING?
“Hefting” is the term used to assess the amount of honey stores left inside a hive without opening the lid, and it is a necessity at this time of year. It is done by lifting first one corner of the hive and then the other. Experienced beekeepers are able to assess the weight by hand, but for the beginner it is easier to use a simple spring balance scale to lift up the hive and check each side in turn. The two figures are then added together to assess the overall weight. As a rough guide, one super full of honey should weigh approximately thirty pounds. Try to get a feel for the weight of the hive both when it is empty and when it is full. If you find you can tip it easily, that would suggest the bees do not have sufficient stores; if it is hard to lift, this should mean that there is enough honey to see them safely through the winter.
Method of Sterilization As this is a quiet time in the beekeeper’s calendar, you might like to take advantage of it to sterilize any equipment that you wish to use next year. Because hives are made of wood, they provide perfect conditions for pests and diseases. By far the best way to sterilize them is to scorch them using a blowtorch.
Make sure you thoroughly scorch both the insides and outsides of all the hive parts, paying special attention to any nooks and crannies, where pests and diseases tend to proliferate. Do not burn the wood—you just need to give it a sufficient blast of heat to sterilize it. However, this is not something you will have to do in your first year unless you have purchased secondhand equipment.
Christmas is here, and it’s time for you to take a well-earned rest from your duties as a beekeeper. Go to some local beekeeping association meetings or put a few bee books on your Christmas list. You might even like to make a list of the equipment you already have and what you still want to acquire. If you have enjoyed the first six months, you might consider getting a second hive and starting another colony. Two hives are not really much more work than one, and you will be able to extract much more honey once the colonies are fully established.
You should check that the bees have enough food stores left and that the hive is completely weatherproofed. If you see any problem areas, now is the time to fix them. Continue to check the floor of the hive for varroa mites and make sure your records are up to date.
When bees are starting to raise their brood, they need to extract more than just carbohydrates from their honey store to survive; protein is also important to the health of the bees, and this is obtained from pollen. If the temperature is above fifty degrees, you can feed them some pollen patties, but do not open the hive if it is colder than this because you will risk chilling the brood.
Providing pollen patties in mid-winter can not only maintain the health of the existing bees but also boost early brood production, which will help to replace the bees lost during the cold weather. You can make pollen patties yourself, but if you need only a small amount, it is best to buy them ready-made because bee pollen can carry AFB spores, which can spread disease. Ready-made patties are made only from spore-free pollen. Allow one to one and a half pounds per hive.
Although it is generally not advisable to open your hive in winter, placing pollen patties in it can be done so quickly it does not break up the cluster. First, cut a “V” shape in the paper around the patty and then peel it back to reveal the pollen dough. Open the hive and expose the top of the cluster. If it is in the lower box, you might have to remove the top box because the patty has to be placed just above the cluster, resting on the top of the frames.
Make sure that you have your smoker lit, as you may need to encourage your bees to move down between the frames so that you do not risk squashing any of them. Check for varroa mite and if necessary treat with chemical strips. Hang two strips per hive for a maximum of forty-five days.
PAINTING AND REPAIRING HIVES
During the winter months, make sure your spare equipment and hives are in good repair for the start of the new season. One of the most important jobs when repairing or repainting your hive is to check for any signs of pests or diseases. If the wood is badly infested, the best idea is to scorch the entire hive. If the problem is only minor, sterilizing the hive before painting will suffice.
It’s important that all beekeeping equipment is kept in good condition. Keep an eye open for dry rot in the hive, which can affect the lid, bottom board, and boxes. Depending on how serious the problem is, the wood can either be repaired or replaced. Dry rot can be detected by simply tapping the wood with a hammer— if dry rot is present, the hammer will make an indentation in the wood. Frames are not easy to repair because wires can break, so it’s probably better to melt down the wax foundation and replace the frames with new ones.
You will need to make sure there is no build up of propolis on any of the hive parts. This can be removed by scraping it off with your hive tool.
If you have had your hives for a while, you might like to put a preservative on the wood before repainting. If so, make sure the product you intend to use does not contain any insecticides and follow the manufacturer’s instructions carefully. After preserving, leave plenty of time for the wood to dry before painting, otherwise you may find the paint simply falls off. Use only nontoxic latex paint— you do not wish to poison your bees. Choose a white or light-colored paint so it will reflect as much heat as possible.
February is when the bees start stirring within the hive. Things are starting to change within the cluster itself. The first cells are now being prepared so they are ready to hold the eggs that the queen is about to lay. If the winter has been really mild, you might find she never actually stopped laying. As the brood is produced, the temperature inside the brood nest increases and this in itself will encourage more brood-rearing activity.
If you live in an area that has a woodpecker population, February is the month you need to be particularly vigilant. Because the supply of insects is probably at its lowest, the beehive will be a great source of food for certain species of woodpecker.
The following are methods for protecting your hive against woodpeckers, and whichever you choose is a matter of personal preference.
- Cover the hive in wire mesh.
- Wrap the hive in builders’ polyethylene sheets.
- Hang old CDs above the hive.
- Paint your hive white; woodpeckers do not seem interested in pecking through paint.
- Use old fertilizer or animal feed sacks to cover the hive because these do not tear.
Ants often build nests in crevices within the beehive. The bees will not be bothered by their presence, but you may find them an irritation you could do without. Treating them with an insect repellent runs a high risk of killing your bees too, so if you are really keen to deter the ants, stand the legs of your hive in cans filled with oil—this will stop the ants from climbing up the side of your hive.
Test for varroa mites and, if necessary, treat using two chemical strips per hive. Your treatment must be in the hive by the first day of February, otherwise you will not be able to install supers in April because you risk contaminating the honey. See blog 25 for more information on varroa mites.
Keep a check on the entrance to the hive to make sure that it has not become blocked, and that there is no buildup of dead bees in the area. If it is a really wet month, as is not uncommon in February, put a wedge under the back of the hive so that the floor slopes slightly forward to allow any rainwater to drain away. Check that there are no holes in the hive that can allow water or wind in and that the roof is secure.
Gently heft the hive to check food weight. If it feels light, place a block of sugar candy over the feedhole.
Now write down everything you have seen in your record book. Never leave anything to memory; these notes will be quite useful later in the year.
By March, provided the weather is not too cold, your bees should be showing even more signs of early activity. By now the queen should be laying more eggs, which will be kept warm by the cluster, and the workers will start their cleansing flights. If the weather is mild, you could see workers beginning to bring in pollen from early-flowering plants such as the snowdrop, crocus, and primrose.
During the winter period when the bees were inactive, you will have installed mouse guards to stop mice entering the hive, eating the honey stores, and destroying the colony. As soon as spring comes, the mouse guards will need to be removed, because the bees will need easy access for the collection of fresh pollen on which to raise their new brood. The removal of the guards ensures that the pollen will not become dislodged when the bees try to squeeze through a small space.
If you have not done so already, clear any vegetation away from around the entrance to the hive. If the weather is cold, do not disturb your bees, but do check activity around the entrance. Dead bees, bee excreta deposits (little sticky yellow spots on the outside of the hive), or crawling bees may indicate disease. Dead larvae show that the colony is running short of food. If you see bees fighting, this is a sign that robber bees (see below) are operating, while a mass of bees coming out of the hive in a cluster means that the hive is overcrowded and the colony may be on the verge of swarming.
The weather conditions are still changeable in early spring, so it is best not to disturb your bees unless it is absolutely necessary. This means you will have to observe the behavior of your bees and other insects around the hive, checking for signs of disease and overcrowding.
The presence of a column of ants going into the hive may indicate that the colony has perished over the winter months. To check, put your ear to the hive and give it a good knock; if you do not hear buzzing coming from inside, you should lift the roof and investigate further.
Now is also a good time to remove any debris you see from the bottom board and check for the presence and if so, the extent, of varroa mites.
Continue to pay close attention to the weight of the hive by hefting, especially if the weather is starting to warm up. The colony will now be growing quickly and the bees’ consumption of food will be increasing rapidly. If they have already consumed the sugar candy block, replace it with a new one. You might like to consider feeding them with a light sugar syrup toward the end of the month if the weather continues to be mild.
Colonies are at risk of attack from external predators all year. Stronger colonies will seek out weaker ones, force their way in, and plunder honey supplies. These trespassers are known as “robber bees,” and they can be the downfall of your colony. You may notice them buzzing around in the spring before the main nectar flow gets underway. If you see any of the following signs, there is a good chance your hive has been targeted:
- dead bees in front of the hive
- bees trying to enter the hive through splits or holes
- bees at the entrance of the hive swaying back and forth
- loud buzzing and the aggressive nature of the bees outside the hive
- bees on guard inside the hive being more active than usual
- a large group of bees lurking outside the hive first thing in the morning
- wax particles at the entrance
- bees entering and leaving quickly
There are steps you can take to avoid attracting robbers and lessen your chances of your colony being attacked, but first and foremost you need to have bred a strong colony. Robber bees will generally not attack strong colonies because they are able to defend themselves, having sufficient numbers to place guards at the entrance to the hive.
You should be able to spot robber bees because they will be buzzing excitedly around the hive.
Not only will such robber bees deplete your colony’s food stores, but these raiders are also detrimental to the health and well-being of your bees. Robber bees can spread diseases such as AFB or EFB because they can pass germs from one hive to another during their attacks. They can also cause stress within the colony, which in itself can lead to poor health and the possibility of swarming.
The best advice is to reduce the size of the hive’s entrance; this will help the bees protect their hive by giving them a smaller space to defend. In summary, however, the long-term way to protect your hives from robber bees is to make sure your colony is strong and to check your hives on a regular basis.
As the spring months advance, the beekeeper’s job is to keep a balance between a thriving colony and an overpopulated one. Bees that do not have adequate food supplies or enough room in the hive will prepare to swarm. This is their way of reproducing a new colony by means of the queen and her workers departing the hive in a large group. The colony may also swarm when the queen is dying or becoming ill, or if outbreaks of infection arise within the colony. The bees will leave in order to make a stronger colony in a new location.
Another cause of bees’ swarming is the emergence of a new queen. Look out for “queen cells” on the outer edges of the comb, resembling small pods. The queen will lay her eggs in these cells, and when they are capped, she will be ready to leave with half the workers to form a new colony. When she is gone, a virgin queen will emerge to take over the colony, stinging her rivals to death. Once outside, the swarm will wait nearby while the scout bees look for a new nest. The scouts will then return and perform a dance, indicating what they have found, until the swarm decides which is the best place.
Although this is a completely natural process, it is not very helpful to the beekeeper, since the colony will be so depleted that it will not make much honey the following season. Therefore, beekeepers have devised various methods to stop this from happening.
Many ways of preventing bees from swarming exist. Some of these are not easy for the novice beekeeper and may need to be performed by someone more experienced—for example, such steps as finding and destroying queen cells or clipping the wings of the queen bee so that she does not fly away, taking her worker bees with her.
Others are quite simple, and they involve good day-to-day management of your hive, such as feeding your bees adequately, especially in early spring, and adding a further brood box to make sure the colony has plenty of room.
If you already have more than one brood box, you can also use the reversing method, swapping the positions of the upper and lower brood boxes, since the colony will have moved to the top of the hive during winter. Throughout the season, when the bees move up into the higher boxes, you can keep up this process of reversal. The queen will not go down to a lower brood box to lay eggs—if the upper brood box is full, she will either stop laying or swarm. Moving an empty brood box from below to the top gives her space to move upward.
Another way of providing more room in the hive is to add supers on top of the brood boxes, so that the bees will have additional storage space for honey. The first box should be filled with comb to help the bees with their honey production early in the season.
Catching a Swarm
A swarm is a fantastic sight to behold—a black cloud of maybe twenty-five thousand bees—but the noise can be quite alarming to onlookers. Although the thought of catching a swarm will probably be a frightening one, if you are with someone who knows what they are doing and everyone remains calm, it is not as difficult as it sounds. There are specific individuals within beekeeping associations who have experience in this job, and it is possible to put your name down on a list if you want to be the recipient of one of these swarms to build a new colony in your apiary. If you are lucky enough that the swarm is in your vicinity, you can collect it and boost your apiary for nothing. However, this can be a risk since you do not know what breed the bees are, and they may carry disease.
If bees are planning to swarm, they will generally leave the hive in the morning and fly around in a rather haphazard manner for about thirty minutes before finding a temporary place to rest. They all gather in the same place and form a dense black mass, quite often on a tree branch or fence post. To protect the queen, they huddle in a shape that resembles a football, waiting for their scouts to find a new location. The swarm shouldn’t be too aggressive because they will have gorged on honey before deserting the hive, leaving them in a fairly soporific state.
This is where you can take advantage of the fact the bees are all in one place. Put on your bee suit, light your smoker, and have a sturdy box handy. You should have someone with you because it is not really a job that can be attempted single-handed. Your aim is to dislodge the swarm from its temporary resting place into the box.
If the swarm is within reach, it might be possible to give the branch a fairly vigorous shake so they drop into the box that your assistant is holding underneath. Alternatively, you could cut the branch with a pair of sturdy pruning shears. If the swarm is on a fence or a gatepost, you might need to use a bee brush to try to get them to move, first encouraging them with a gentle puff of smoke.
Once you have caught the swarm, cover the box with a sheet or net curtain and take them to their new location.
The easiest way to transfer your bees from the box into the hive you have prepared for their arrival is to place a piece of board up against the landing board and allow it to slope to the ground. Now cover the board with a piece of white sheet, making sure that it touches the entrance but does not block it. Turn the box containing the bees upside down and shake them all off onto the sheet. They will automatically crawl up the sheet, attracted by the dark entrance to the hive. Once the queen has entered the hive, the bees’ natural instinct is to follow her inside. This can take up to an hour, but it is a natural process and one that fools the bees into believing they found the new home on their own. By using this natural method, your bees will also settle much quicker in the new hive ar quickly build up in the brood box.
Equipment for Catching a Swarm
a sturdy container such as a bee skep or a cardboard box
- a piece of net curtain or sheet to cover the box
- pruning shears or saw for cutting branches
- protective clothing
- a smoker and a lighter or matches
- a ladder if the swarm is high up
- brood box, frames, floor, and roof ready to take the swarm
- a white sheet for transferring the bees to the hive
- a wooden board measuring 4×2 feet
Be prepared to place a super on this hive within the first week or so because this new colony will expand rapidly; the number of bees is much larger than that of a nucleus.
By now, the bees will be busy collecting nectar and pollen from the abundance of flowers. Spring flowers are an essential source of nectar for bees, so make sure you have plenty in your garden. In late winter to early spring, aconites, snowdrops, and crocuses, along with shrubs such as Christmas box and winter honeysuckle, will help your bees to forage close to home. By April, they will be feeding from daffodils and forget- me-nots.
They will also be drawn to shrubs and trees such as viburnum, currant, crab apple, flowering cherry, pussy willow, and hawthorn. By having at least some of these near the hive, you will be helping your bees to survive until the weather becomes warmer and they can start to fly farther afield.
It is also a good idea to check the entrance to the hive this month for the appearance of old pollen pellets. They will be small and grey and should crumble when crushed between two fingers. This is a good indication that the bees are building up their brood nest. It is quite natural for these pellets to become dislodged when the bees use the entrance to the hive, and it demonstrates that there is plenty of pollen in the area.
When you make your first spring inspection, be careful not to take too long or you may chill your new brood. If the weather is still cold, simply lift the roof and remove the crown board for a couple of minutes. If you can see bees on at least four or five frames, that indicates that the colony has survived and is doing well. If the weather is warm and still, you can safely carry out your first spring detailed inspection. The main things to check are
- that your queen is healthy and is laying eggs. She should be fairly easy to spot since there are fewer bees in the colony with few, if any, drones;
- that the brood is growing at different stages in the cells;
- that there are no signs of disease or pests;
- that the floor is clean;
- that food supplies are adequate;
- that the colony has started to grow bigger (you can do this by counting the frames they are utilizing); and
Coax bees into early activity by planting the following in your garden:
- crab apple trees
- currant bushes
- flowering cherry
- pussy willow
- winter aconite
- that the hive is not overcrowded (check for signs of swarming).
First, wearing your suit and carrying your smoker, approach the beehive from the side and gently lift the lid. If it is stuck, you will need to use your hive tool. If the bees are extra active, use your smoker to calm them down. Next, take out the feeder frame at the end of the box. This will give you room to remove each of the frames, separating them with your hive tool.
In the center, you will find the brood frames. Hold each of these up to the light. There should be a single egg resembling a tiny grain of rice in each cell, and the queen should be on one of the brood frames.
Now take a look at the brood cells. In a healthy colony, the eggs will be at the base of each cell, in a milky substance. You will also see white curled larvae. Each cell should be capped by wax. Check for the presence of pollen and honey around the brood area and top up the feeder with sugar syrup.
Just like a house, the hive needs freshening up after a long winter. Wait for the warmest part of the day so that the foragers will be out and fewer bees will be in the hive. Make sure you have a new brood box with you that contains frames filled with foundation, a new crown board, and a feeder containing heavy sugar syrup. Follow these steps:
- Light your smoker, put on your protective gear, and puff at the entrance to the hive. Wait for five minutes before opening the hive.
- Open the lid and remove the crown board and any supers. You should see your bees occupying at least four or five frames in the brood box— these might not always be in the center.
- The frames that have bees on them are the ones that contain fresh brood. The unoccupied frames are likely to be mostly empty and are the ones that should be replaced.
- Go to the frames that are farthest away from the bees first. Examine them to see if there are any capped brood present. If there are only a few cells of capped honey and no brood cells, you can remove this frame from the hive, putting it to one side.
- Keep checking the frames in this way until you find one that has pollen on one side of it. This will indicate that there are some new brood cells on the opposite side. If you can see the larvae in the cells, put the frame back in the brood box in exactly the same place.
- Now go to the other end of the brood box and check the frames in the same way until you come across another frame with pollen and brood present. This should leave you with a total of about five frames with pollen, brood, and bees.
- Move these five frames to the middle of the box. On either side, place a frame that contains plenty of capped honey cells; this will leave you with seven frames in the original brood box.
- Take your new brood box full of foundation and place it on top of the original brood box, making sure that the frames are lined up above the ones below.
- Place a feeder full of heavy sugar syrup over the hole in the crown board, allowing a couple of drips of sugar to fall onto the hive, giving a signal to the bees that there is food above.
- Close the hive and leave the bees to make their way up into the new brood box. As the bees start drawing out the new foundation, the queen should naturally migrate to the new brood box. This is the bees’ own way of making sure of the health of their colony, leaving the old, used comb behind.
Leave the hive alone for about a week, making sure you top off the feeder with syrup if needed. On another sunny day, open the hive and see if the queen has moved up into the new brood box and has started laying new brood. If she has, place a queen excluder between the old brood box and the new one so that you do not risk the queen moving back down the hive. If you are unlucky and she has not moved into the upper brood box, try puffing a little smoke at the entrance to see if you can coax her to move up. If this does not work, you will need to catch her and physically move her into the top brood box. She will quickly be followed by her attendants, and she will start her new brood in the new brood box.
It will take twenty-one days for all of the brood to hatch in the lower chamber and move up to follow the queen. After this period, it is safe to remove the old brood box and frames. Give the hive a new floor, entrance block, varroa screen, and crown board and close up the hive. This is the end of the spring clean.
Sanitize the old brood box and put it into storage for future use.
Remember to keep an eye on the new hive, making regular inspections since the colony will be expanding rapidly at this time of year. Be ready to put a super on top of the brood box when more than half of the frames within it are full.
By May you should be carrying out thorough and regular inspections of the brood box to make sure the queen is doing her job. After your spring clean, any old combs should have been removed because they harbor disease, but if there are any left, take them out now. Look for any signs that the hive is becoming congested and add supers as needed.
Any chemical strips to control varroa mites should be removed before the bees start building up their stocks of honey in the supers.
You might also like to consider setting up a “bait” hive to catch swarms that are looking for new homes—hopefully not your own bees! Several days before a colony is preparing to swarm, scout bees are sent out to find a new home. As the scouts return to the colony, they perform the waggle dance which is their way of reporting what they have found. The colony will interpret the dance movements and then decide whether swarming is worthwhile. By setting up a spare or “bait” hive, you can coax the bees into moving into a location of your choice.
First, they are looking for a space that is large enough for them to make a nest and will also give them room to store honey to get them through the winter. A brood box is just the size they need. Next, they will not want somewhere that has a large entrance that they will have difficulty defending, so make sure the entrance to the brood box is no more than two square inches.
Bees prefer to go to a home that has been used previously by a colony, so installing old equipment that has not been cleaned of old propolis and wax will provide another source of attraction to the scout bees.
Next you need to decide where to place the bait hive. The best place is in a shady position because the bees do not want to work too hard trying to keep the queen and her brood cool on hot summer days. Cover the hole in the crown board, otherwise the new bees might be tempted to build comb in the roof.
The Africanized honeybee, or killer bee as it is commonly known, is not a natural phenomenon but an accident of science—a cross between African and European honeybees that eventually bred with native colonies in the United States. They were originally bred to create a species that could thrive in the tropics and were introduced to Brazil in 1957. Since then, they have continued to spread and now inhabit territories from Argentina to the southern United States.
Contrary to popular belief, their danger lies not in the ferocity of their sting (they are no more venomous than other honeybees) but in their sheer numbers. Most species of bee will send only a few guards out to chase you away from the hive if you disturb them. Killer bees will send almost the whole hive after you and will continue to chase you over a considerable distance. They particularly dislike a loud sound or a strong perfume. They are not inherently vicious but are more sensitive than European honeybees and quicker to defend their hives.
People have reported being stung hundreds or even thousands of times. While about five hundred stings could be enough to kill a small child, the average adult can withstand approximately one thousand stings, provided they are not allergic to the venom. If you are unlucky enough to live in an area where killer bees are known to live, it is best to avoid any holes in the ground where you can see bees buzzing around since this type of bee loves to build nests in such places.
If you see bees visiting the bait hive, you can be pretty sure that there is a colony in your vicinity that is preparing to swarm. If you are lucky enough to catch a swarm, remove the old comb you have provided as quickly as possible and replace it with fresh foundation.
You will also need to check this new colony regularly for disease, since you cannot be certain where the bees came from and what they brought with them. Ideally they will settle quickly in their new home and the queen will start laying a new brood.
Increasing the Honey Harvest
When flowers are in bloom, the bees have more nectar and pollen sources and the “honey flow” (the storing of surplus honey) will gain momentum. Your main aim at this time of year is to make sure your bees have enough room to store the honey.
An effective way of doing this is to provide your bees with “drawn comb.” This is foundation that has already been built out (or drawn) by bees, giving them less work to do.
When it comes to extracting the honey, you will want to take some for yourself, so encouraging them to produce large amounts is important. You should also replace any supers you remove with new ones to allow the bees to continue their daily tasks.
While the queen is the most important member of the colony, populating the hive by laying up to two thousand eggs a day, there comes a time when her services are no longer up to scratch. Queen bees can live for up to five years, but they are really at their best in only their first and second years of life. You can measure how hard the queen is working by the number of emerging bees in the hive. After two years, her sperm supply from her mating flight will be running out, and you will see a significant decline in the number of eggs she produces. If you leave her any longer, there is a good chance that she will stop fertilizing eggs, and the hive will fail as a consequence. Based on this, many beekeepers decide to requeen after two years. You can replace the old queen by buying a new one, or you can simply wait for the bees to take care of things in their own way by supersedure.
The most important factor in requeening is the successful introduction of the new queen to the hive. You will need to inspect the frames in your brood box to check that you have a proportion of healthy brood and at least three frames of bees. The hive also needs to be queenless; if you need to bring this about yourself, destroy the old queen at least six hours before you introduce the new one. It is probably best to wait until your new queen arrives before you do this just to cover yourself against being left without a queen for a while.
There must be a good source of carbohydrate in order to create the perfect environment for successful requeening, but if there is a steady nectar flow at the time, it is not essential to feed the hive. Once you’re happy that your hive is in a good position to accept the new queen, you can start the procedure of preparing her for her new home. She will arrive in a small cage, and you should put a drop each of water and honey on the top and place her in a dry, warm place until you are ready.
Before introducing the queen, try to release the bees attending her in the cage—do this in an enclosed area since you do not want to lose your queen. It is not essential, so there is no need to worry if they do not all leave. If the new queen is not marked, you will need to mark her before introducing her to the colony. Your last job is to gently press the queen cage with its occupant between two frames that contain hatching brood. This is to make sure that there are young bees close to the new queen at all times to take care of her. One side of the queen cage will be blocked by a piece of sugar candy, which the nurse bees already in the hive will chew through in a couple of days. Once the exit is open, the queen will crawl out and climb onto the brood frame.
Leave the hive alone for five days to give the queen time to settle down with her new colony and start laying.
EXTRACTING YOUR HONEY HARVEST IN THE SECOND YEAR
Let us now assume that you have had your bees for a year and that you are approaching your second summer. You should really be able to start reaping the rewards for your hard work at this point. In a good year, you can expect at least forty to forty-nine pounds of honey from each hive, but in a bad year you may have little, so you will have to be prepared to feed your bees sugar in times of dearth. However, if your bees have survived the winter and are building up into a strong colony, there is no reason why you should not get a good crop of honey in your second year. Check that more than half of the frames have capped honey cells and that you have all your equipment ready before you start. You will not want to be running back and forth to collect tools once your hands are sticky.
The new queen with several attendants will arrive by mail in a small cage. One end will be blocked with a piece of sugar candy.
You should not assume that getting your first colony of bees through the winter and early spring means you have now learned everything there is to know about the hobby. There is still a ways to go yet, and more experienced beekeepers will tell you that every year they learn something new. Continue to read books, talk to professionals, and consult with your local association if you are in any doubt.
Beekeeping is not too labor-intensive, and although regular inspections are necessary in the summer, the amount of time you spend with the bees is probably as little as forty hours a year. Honey harvesting is a little more time-consuming, but consider the rewards: you can sit back at the end of the year with pots of honey on your shelves, content that you have not only learned more about your hobby, but you are also helping to slow the decline of the honeybee.