The honey bee year has no beginning or end. Colonies have bees in them all year round. But the beekeeping year has what can be considered a natural beginning in early spring, when a beekeeper makes his or her first hive inspection and the colonies are building up. We look at the first spring inspection and checking honey stores & queen status.
The month for the first hive inspection depends on where you live. When I was a PhD student at Cornell University, in upstate New York, the winter was long and cold and the first inspection was generally in mid April. In Sussex, the winter is not as long or cold and it is possible to inspect hives in March, maybe even in late February if there is good weather. When I lived in California, hives could be checked all year round and the bees were often foraging strongly in December and January.
There are two key things to check. 1) Does the colony have enough honey? 2) Does it have a laying queen? Chose a warm day on which the bees are flying. Keep your inspections brief to avoid chilling the brood.
A. Honey stores & feeding colonies
Honey bee colonies use much more food in spring than in winter because they increase their brood rearing. Even though flowers are available in spring, it is very easy to lose colonies without adequate honey stores to starvation when a period of bad weather stops foraging. A colony needs a buffer against starvation of a few frames of honey. One way to feed a colony is to add one or more frames of honey from a colony with more than it needs. Another way is to feed sugar syrup.
Winter is too cold to feed syrup, but when it warms up in spring it is possible. One of the simplest ways to feed syrup is to use an inverted glass jar above the inner cover hole, with a few small nail holes in the lid, all covered over with an empty hive box and with the outer cover on top. Use concentrated syrup, but not so concentrated that the sugar does not all dissolve and so blocks the holes in the lid.
I usually make up syrup by filling a jar, or jars, about two-thirds with regular table sugar, then add boiling water from a kettle until it is nearly at the top. (So far I have not had any jars crack when I do this.) Stir well and all the sugar should dissolve in a few minutes. It is also possible to make up syrup in larger amounts in a bucket, large saucepan, or in a honey tank. The key thing is to use hot water. Take care. It is easy to make a mess when making up syrup. Do everything in a sink or outside. Boiling water and hot syrup can also be dangerous.
The exact concentration of sugar is not critical. But if you make more concentrated syrup you are saving time as you are feeding more sugar. Syrup can be fed as required. Syrup feeding should be stopped when the honey supers go on or when not needed any longer. The syrup is only a supplement to a colony’s needs. If there is plenty of nectar they wont take the syrup. In California, my colonies would rarely touch any syrup I provided.
B. Queen status
What about the queen? A honey bee colony needs to have an egg laying queen. However, it is not necessary to see the queen to know that she is there. Queens can be hard to find and it is not a good idea to go rummaging through a hive looking for the queen unless there is a definite reason why you need to see her or catch her, as you may accidentally kill her. If your colony has patches of worker brood then, almost certainly, it has a queen. In spring, every colony should have capped worker brood on several frames, the amount depending on how strong the colony is. This will be flat and ideally should have a good “brood pattern”.
To be even more sure you have a queen you can look into the brood cells to check for eggs and young larvae. The best way to do this is to lift a frame from the hive, gently shake off the bees onto the top bars of the hive, and then hold the frame in such a way that sunlight penetrates into the bottoms of the cells. This will make it simple to see eggs and young larvae. Good light is the key.
Every beekeeper should be able to check brood frames for eggs and young larvae, and should know what these look like. Not every brood frame will have eggs as the queen may not have visited that area in the past 3 days to lay. The presence of eggs indicates that in the past 3 days, and probably right now, the colony had a laying queen.
In the winter and spring it is common for queens to die or to become drone layers. These colonies should be identified and can be dealt with during hive inspections, including the first inspection. This is quite simple to do as the symptoms are characteristic and easily observed.
C. Queenless colony with laying workers
This will not have worker brood, but may have drone brood from laying workers. One obvious symptom of laying workers is that there will usually be multiple eggs per cell, and the eggs will not be as neatly laid as by a queen. Many will not be standing upright. Laying workers prefer to lay their eggs in drone cells, so that the eggs and brood will often be in drone cells. However, if drone cells are not available, laying workers will also lay in worker cells.
This colony is going to die out. It is not easy to requeen a colony with laying workers, so don’t even try. The simplest remedy is to unite the queenless colony with a strong colony, by placing it on top of the strong colony with sheets of newspaper in between. (First remove the bottom board.) The two colonies will gradually unite. In this way you can save the bees.
D. Queenless colony without laying workers
This will not have eggs or larvae, but will not yet have drone brood from laying workers, which generally takes several weeks or more of queenlessness. It may have emergency queen cells. This colony may well requeen itself and it is probably worth trying to save the colony. Give it a frame of brood from another colony. This will help keep the colony going, and will also give the colony some young larvae from which to rear a young queen who can then mate naturally. In future hive inspections determine whether it has a laying queen or has laying workers. If it has a laying queen then it is back to normal. If it has laying workers, then treat it as above. If it has neither, be patient and give the colony another frame of brood to keep it going.
E. Colony with a drone laying queen
The colony has a mated queen but the queen is no longer able to lay fertilized eggs, perhaps because the sperm she has stored from her mating flight has run out, died or is blocked. The queen carries on laying eggs in worker cells, but some or all of these are male (unfertilized) eggs. The resulting patches of brood in worker cells are partly, mainly, or all drones. When sealed, these have domed cappings not the flat cappings of worker pupae. (Note that we are not worried if the queen is laying drone eggs in the larger-diameter drone cells and worker eggs in the smaller-diameter worker cells. This is natural. Drone rearing starts in spring, provided that the colony is not too weak.)
This colony is going to die out but can be saved. To save it, it needs to be requeened. Kill the drone laying queen and several days later introduce another queen if one is available. Alternatively, kill the drone laying queen and introduce one or more frames of brood to allow the colony to rear their own replacement queen. Another remedy is to kill the queen and unite the colony with a strong colony using the newspaper method (see above). This will save the bees. You can build back colony numbers later by dividing this colony.
F. General points for first inspection
If you have colonies with queen problems in spring, especially at first inspection, it will often make sense to unite these colonies with other colonies to save the bees. You can then re-establish replacement colonies later on in spring by dividing the living colonies.
Make your inspections quickly, taking only a few minutes per hive to check the honey situation and for the queen. Do not chill the brood. It is not necessary to use the first inspection to get everything done. You can leave non-essential jobs, such as scraping out unwanted wax and propolis from frames and hive bodies, for a later day when warmer weather allows for a longer inspection.
It may also be a good idea to wait until a later inspection to equalize colonies by moving frames of brood from strong colonies to weak colonies. If you do this early in spring, there is a risk that the receiving colony will not have enough bees to keep the extra brood warm, and the brood will die which is a waste. To boost a weak colony it is best to transfer a frame of mainly sealed brood as this will more quickly give rise to adult worker bees. To boost a queenless colony, a frame of mainly unsealed brood is better as this will give the worker bees larvae to care for. The larvae also inhibit the queenless worker bees from activating their ovaries and becoming laying workers.
There is not much you can do with your hives in early spring. Let the bees get on with things themselves. You help the colonies by ensuring they will not starve, and you can also save any bees in colonies with queen problems.
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