Your Hive(s) Survived the Winter. Now What?

Springtime Management Tips for Honey Production

By Sylvia Feldman and Warren Miller

Good news! Your hive(s) survived the winter! Early spring is a wonderful time for a beekeeper with surviving colonies. You may enjoy watching your girls at the hive entrance as they undertake orientation flights and bring in pollen. It is a time of optimism. You may be thinking about honey, and fantasizing about the many gallons that your girls will produce.

Your girls may have other ideas. What are your colonies thinking about? To paraphrase Craig Cella, if you want to know, just head on down to the 7-11 on a Friday night and watch the teenage couples. It does not take a wild stretch of the imagination to guess what is on their minds. Bees are not far removed from that biological imperative to reproduce. For a hive that has overwintered, that urge to swarm is strong.

What is the big deal about swarming anyway? Swarms have benefits. If a swarm is successful in establishing itself in a new location, it propagates the species. Swarms relieve congestion in the hive. They also help to control varroa. As beekeepers, we may have differing opinions about swarms. (Let’s face it. We have different opinions about a lot of things.) Someone whose goal for her bees is pollination may see a swarm as an awe-inspiring sight. Alternatively, a beekeeper who sells honey may see a swarm as little dollar bills flying away. Swarm prevention may not be a priority for you. But if you want to harvest a honey crop, your best success with that endeavor will involve preventing swarms. Read on for some tips on how to do this.

Know your Beekeeping Calendar
Bees don’t always pay attention to the beekeeping calendar. It can be helpful, however, for a beekeeper to have a rough idea of some management milestones. (These rough dates are applicable to central PA; if you keep bees in another area, consult your local club to find what dates are more applicable to you.)

  • Swarm season. Swarm season runs roughly from mid-April to mid-May. But like I said, the bees don’t always read the right books or consult the right calendars. Are your bees making swarm preparations? The only way to tell is with regular hive inspections.
  • Nectar flows. Here in central PA, we have two nectar flows. Our spring flow runs roughly from early to mid-May (when locust trees are in bloom) through mid-July. We also have a fall flow. It typically runs from mid- to late August until the first killing frost. The spring flow is usually dependable. The fall flow is hit or miss. We had a great fall flow in 2015, but in the three years prior, many beekeepers had to feed their bees a 2:1 sugar syrup solution to supplement their stores going into the winter.
  • Warm nights. When the spring nights warm up for good, pay attention. This happens when our overnight temperatures reach 50+ degrees. The colony doesn’t need to delegate its workforce to keeping the brood warm anymore at this point. Populations can explode exponentially in a short amount of time.
  • Best time to start a nuc with a crowded colony. Some beekeepers like to start a nuc by removing the queen and several frames of bees, brood, and eggs from their strong colonies. This offers some control against varroa mites, helps to relieve congestion, and also ensures that their parent colony has a young queen going into the winter. (Yes, we are looking ahead to winter already.) The best time to do this is at the beginning of the spring flow - usually around the first week of June. For more information about the benefits of this strategy, see this article.

Decide if You Want to Supplement
Your surviving colony may be limping along, or it may be extremely robust. Should you supplement with extra food? That depends. What do the colony’s stores look like? Are nectar and pollen readily available when it is warm enough for your bees to forage? Do you need to feed sugar syrup prior to the nectar flow because you want to stimulate your colony to draw foundation? If you plan to feed sugar syrup to your bees in early spring, you may be stimulating your queen to lay more eggs. Sounds like a good thing, right?

Not so fast. Bees need both carbohydrates (sugar or honey) and protein (pollen) to feed developing larva. Each developing bee needs a cell of honey, a cell of pollen, and a cell of water. As you decide whether or not to supplement, pay close attention to conditions in your apiary. If your bees are bringing in vast amounts of pollen, you may not need to supplement with a pollen patty. And if your colony has drawn comb and ample honey already, you may opt to forgo feeding sugar syrup in the spring. 

Depending on the strength of your colony and the availability of forage, it is possible to get a great honey crop simply by letting them gather their own resources gradually and naturally. If you do opt to supplement with a pollen substitute, start in mid- to late-February. This will make a difference two months down the road when you want a strong workforce. Keep an eye on your colony growth. Properly managed, growth is a good thing. If you can’t keep up with regular inspections during swarm season, however, you may want to opt out of supplemental feeding.  

Make Sure that Your Queen Does Not Feel Crowded
If a colony determines that their queen doesn’t have enough room to lay eggs, it is very likely that they will make a decision to swarm. A lot of beekeeping literature contends that you can offer ample laying room by putting an empty super directly over the brood area. Seasoned beekeepers know that this measure is not enough. You also need to regularly insert empty frames into the brood area itself.

To prevent overcrowding, move some frames around each time you go into the hive for spring inspections. Put an empty frame very close to where you find eggs, assuming that it is warm enough for the cluster to keep the brood warm even with that empty frame there. Your goal is to make sure that the queen has plenty of laying room. If the hive feels crowded, consider inserting two empty frames directly into the brood area, or even checker boarding -  alternating full frames with empty ones adjacent to the brood area.

Make Regular Inspections
Beekeeping is seasonal. If you are hoping to manage your bees for a honey crop, spring will be your busiest time of year. During swarm season, it is helpful to get into your hive every 7-10 days. This is what you want to look for:
  • A laying queen. Do you see a laying queen? Look for her during inspections. Make sure that she has a nice laying pattern, and that she is laying ample amounts of brood. If you find a queen that is not laying in the spring, give her a little time. If things don’t improve, make arrangements to buy a new queen to replace her, or to combine the faltering colony with another colony that is queenright. It is difficult to find an early spring queen for replacement. If you are successful in finding one, it is likely that she will be poorly mated as an early spring queen.
  • Brood and eggs. Look for eggs, and for larvae of different ages. Seeing eggs as well as capped and uncapped brood can be especially reassuring if your queen is difficult to see.
  • Food. Do you see honey and pollen stores? Is there enough food for the developing brood? 
  • Overcrowding. See previous section.
  • Queen cups. Look to see if your colony has queen cups. Colonies are constantly building up and tearing down queen cups. Their presence is normal, and is not necessarily an indication that a colony is making preparations to swarm. However, if you see eggs or larva in the queen cups, that is typically an indication that swarm plans are in the works.

Have a Strategy if You See Queen Cells
Do you have queen cells in your hive? If you have a strategy in place before you see them, you don’t have to make a spur-of-the-moment decision as to what to do. The reality is that once a queen cup turns into a queen cell in the spring, it is hard to stop swarming.  If the cell gets capped, your best mode of action may be to sit back and watch the swarm fly. You will not stop it unless you break your colony up into many nucs and move them. Let’s look at some scenarios leading up to those capped cells:

  • If you have eggs in your queen cups or very young uncapped queen cells. It might not be too late to thwart swarming. You might be able to prevent a swarm by destroying all of the young queen cups/cells. If you do this, be sure to add more empty frames to the brood area to minimize congestion.
  • If you have older (almost capped) queen cells. You most likely will not be able to prevent swarming, but here is a strategy if you want to try:
    • You could find the queen (it sounds so easy, doesn’t it?); remove her along with the frame that she is on; make a nuc with her and four more frames of brood, honey, pollen, and eggs; and destroy all but one queen cell. This will alleviate congestion, and also minimize the potential for a swarm when your remaining queen cell hatches. Although not an ideal strategy, it may be your best bet under the circumstances.
  • If you have capped queen cells. Chances are that you will not be able to prevent swarming. The good news is that it won’t be a surprise. Be ready with an empty hive and something with which to catch that swarm. They may be ready to take off early on the next sunny day, so keep an eye out.
Ultimately, prevention is your best strategy. 

Don’t be greedy
Have some reverence for your bees. And by all means, don’t be greedy. As hobbyists, we have an obligation toward ethical husbandry. Work with your bees. Don’t push them beyond their limits. Not every hive is going to be a good candidate for honey production every year. If you have a small colony that is building up gradually, you may be doing more harm than good by harvesting honey from it. Give that colony a year off. That break may be what it needs to become a robust colony in the following year.

Honey is not just a natural sweetener—it is antiseptic and antibiotic, helping to speed healing for cuts, burns, abrasions, diabetic foot ulcers, and other open wounds. It helps soothe coughs as well as or better than cough syrup. It truly is a miracle substance. Treat your bees with respect. With good conditions and a little luck, you can look forward to a good relationship for years to come.

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