Spring – the busiest bee season! Like the other four seasons (swarming, supering, harvesting, fall), spring comes with varying activities for beekeepers depending on weather conditions and our beekeeping objectives. Beekeeping is a continuous learning experience. In spring, bee colonies need to grow their colony population and rebuild their stocks of honey. Our “reluctant” March and April 2023 spring offered some lessons we might incorporate into spring beekeeping.
Spring colonies benefit from some sheltering
Hopefully your colonies were able to survive winter. The PNWHoneyBee Survey preliminary numbers show OR backyarders lost about 1/3rd of their stock. In February colonies looked in decent shape but the “reluctant” spring weather did in weak colonies that might otherwise have survived. I am working on the WVBA survey results. 28 members returned a survey. Thank you. The overall club loss was 21%, well below the OR statewide loss level of 30%. There were 79 8-frame colonies (loss rate 14%) and 140 Langstroth 10-frame Langstroth (22% loss rate). Eight fall long hives showed 5 surviving. Of 13 fall nucs 11 survived to this spring. One top bar of 3 survived but the 2 fall Warré hives did not
Cold winds and excessive moisture are problematic for the bees. Hives sheltered from the wind and entrances facing the sun help colonies to forage during winter and emerge to begin to get strong in spring. Colonies facing the sun out of direct wind might be able to forage under marginal weather and temperatures. That was especially important with our cool rainy spring.
Feeding the Bees
Towards the end of winter, honey bees can exhaust most of their honey reserves. Since weather often prevents their leaving the hive to forage, feeding can ensure they remain alive. A strong honey bee colony in spring gives you the possibility of a higher honey yield.
Quickly opening the top of the beehive and checking honey stores should still be done. If there is none or very little (each colony should have the equivalent of two full frames) feed sugar. Once the weather improves we can switch from sugar cubes to liquid sugar at a 1:1 mixture (one part sugar to one part water). Some beekeepers like to add a protein patty. Several commercial products include pollen – Global patties and now the Mann Lake Ultra Bee Plus patty have some natural pollen included to attract bees. Feeding should be continuous until bees can consistently forage flowers.
Although winter losses were not as severe as in past years, many will start new honey bee colonies in spring. Nucs were generally late in delivery and splitting colonies was not possible as early as in in past seasons. Few beekeepers made splits in April this season. But now swarm season is upon us. Beekeepers with strong bee colonies that have gone through winter should be checking for developing queen cells. For beekeepers who wish to replace lost colonies, having empty beehives ready for swarm catching or to house splits is important. You can use them to make up losses or sell them. Plan to add a super in May.
It takes approximately 6 weeks for bees to transition from a freshly laid egg to an adult forager. Timing brood production enables beekeepers to have a large number of forager bees during nectar-flow. Building up large colonies of honey bees gives the colony better foraging power. Keep in mind that a spring beehive requires about 15,000 bees to tend to the queen, perform hive duties and nurse the brood. Prepare the honey bee colony population build up before nectar-flow, not during nectar-flow.
Treat Beehives for Diseases, Pests and Parasites
We have some pest and disease issues to attend to in spring. Colonies plagued by diseases in the spring drastically slows down their development and their ability to collect food resources. The proactive beekeeper plans to do a disease inspection each spring. Look at both open and sealed brood for abnormalities. Inspections should be made quickly when temperatures are in the 60s or low 70s. Bee brood exposed to too much cold dies which sets the colony back.
New findings about mites
A PhD student Zac Lamas of the University of Maryland has made a couple of significant findings relative to varroa mites. He has data to illustrate that the mites are not randomly distributed (at least in spring). This is significant because a sampling protocol is based on the premise that what you are sampling is randomly distributed. If it is not, you need a special analysis to verify the numbers you find are representative of the total population.
More importantly he has found the varroa mite are not on nurse bees nor are they in worker brood in early spring – they are drone adults and primarily are reproducing in drone brood. This makes sense since the female mite can produce more mature daughters on drone brood than they can on worker brood. What is now being investigated is an improved protocol for how to estimate mite population buildup during spring. In the meantime, think of flattening mite growth by using our tools to flatten varroa buildup without sampling first. Drone brood removal looks like a powerful tool to help reduce mite buildup in the spring since it attacks the mites during spring where they live.
How to Increase Brood Population
Bee brood in a honey bee colony determines colony strength and eventual yields. Having many developing bee larvae at the right time is a desire of many beekeepers for replacement of winter losses, swarm prevention and increasing the number of colonies that the individual beekeeper has. Experienced and beginner beekeepers use various methods to increase brood population.
- Have a mated queen who is laying enough eggs in the beehive. This allows the bee brood to increase from the many eggs that will hatch. Queen bees lay a single egg in each cell. Once the egg hatches, worker bees feed the larvae until it pupates. If your queen bee is not laying enough eggs, the population of brood will dwindle. Replace such an old or diseased queen quickly for increased brood population.
- As more brood transitions to adult bees, the rate of brood population and adult honey bee population growth increases. This is because of increased foraging power that makes large colonies of honey bees build up quicker.
- Feed the honey bees with light sugar syrup. The syrup should be constituted at a ratio of 1:1 between sugar and water. It triggers the bees to feed the queen more and in turn she lays more eggs. You should add supplementary protein to the feeding regime of honey bees for increased brood population.
- Protect beehive and especially the brood from wind and extreme temperature variations. Cold conditions lead to brood death. In cold times, reduce entrances and other openings through which the wind may enter your beehive. Additionally, make sure your beehive is watertight or does not allow in rainwater or water from melting snow.
- Recognize and address foulbrood and chalkbrood diseases. These should be identified early if they strike your beehives. Addressing them properly in their onset saves the honey bee colony from the effects of these diseases. Foulbrood and chalkbrood diseases cause death of honeybee brood and can cause the colony to leave the beehive.
- Finally in spring planting think about the bees. When there are adequate numbers of flowering plants and trees you can stop feeding the bees. They prefer to leave the hive and forage flowers for nectar and pollen. Planting bee friendly flowers is a great way to get your bees ready for the nectar flow. Planting near your apiary will reduce the distance bees need travel for nectar and pollen.