We are approaching April and the weather is not being kind, so there is not much opportunity to carry out real beekeeping other than to be prepared for when the weather improves.
On the first inspection it is important to evaluate the strength of each colony. For example, this week I moved two hives that appeared queen right (plenty of pollen being collected) but one hive had many more bees than the other. So the boxes were physically swapped; the strong colony was placed in the spot of the weak one and the weaker one to where the strong hive was positioned. This meant that when bees from the strong colony left the hive they would return to the weaker one and thereby boost its numbers. By the same token the strong colony is depleted of bees and held back for a while. A quick look under the crown board is enough to determine the strength of colonies and therefore it easy to make these assessments. The bees don’t seem to mind strangers appearing their hive as they aren’t entering in ‘robbing mode’.
If you are lucky to have a colony on the stronger side, that is almost a full brood box of bees, place a super over the crown board. This allows room for bees to expand during warm days but also allows them to keep the brood warm overnight. When most of the super contains bees it is time to move it below the crown board. Note – it is a good idea to over super in spring, that is always placing an empty super above the ones that are below the crown board. Bees might need the space for honey and we are optimists!
When it is possible to carry out a proper inspection (and I like the temperature to be around at least 17/ 18c for the bees sake), my main priority is to find, mark and clip a wing of the queen. This is best time to do this task as the colony is still relatively small, many bees are foraging and there are probably not too many drones around. This last point makes it easier to spot the queen as drones can distract the eye when looking for the main bee. The other consideration on this inspection is to look at the brood:
- a) Is there a good brood pattern?
- b) Does the brood look healthy?
- c) Is there plenty of space for the queen to lay? If there are too many frames of stores replace some with empty drawn ones. But make sure they have stores to last till the next inspection.
The first inspection is also a good time to swap the brood frames into a clean brood box and new floor. The old kit can then be cleaned in readiness for artificial swarming. Using an electric heat gun (paint stripper) I find is an effective way to clean the inside of equipment, especially removing propolis from the runners.
Now to deal with a sadder note. I’m sorry to hear that there are reports of significant losses during last winter. Some losses are the result of site selection so below are my main criteria for an apiary site (if hives are sited in an unsuitable location there is a much higher risk of colony loss, especially during a cold snap.)
- a) Provide shelter from all winds (except southerlies) to reduce chilling effects. The shelter can be natural (clearing in a spinney) or artificial (bales of straw, fencing etc).
- b) If a sun facing spot is also available this really helps. Looking at hives that have over wintered in a sunny sheltered walled garden they appear stronger than those without facing the sun.
Finally, climate change. Our autumns are becoming warmer and I think this is an issue as bees work the ivy for longer. Last year the temperature was mild into early December. My colonies are fed before the end of September and an empty super is returned to hive. Talking with other beekeepers there is a view that bees do not winter very well if they have too much ivy honey. They often do not process it sufficiently and this can cause dysentery. Looking at the outside of hives there has been a lot of ‘staining’ by bees. Some colonies do store a lot of ivy in the super frames and others less so. However, my theory is that last year too much ivy was stored in brood frames as adult bees emerged. This meant the size of the nest reduced over the autumn not allowing the queen sufficient space to lay. This resulted in fewer winter bees and made it more difficult for the colony to maintain heat during the three cold spells we had. These spells were short lived but quite severe. This is probably when many colonies succumbed. Having super frames with ivy raises its own problems but that is for another day.
Even following all the above we can still have losses over the winter. But at least we have given our bees a better chance to survive until spring time.