There really isn't much to do this month, apart from checking up on the hives to make sure that everything is okay and the entrance is clear of snow and the bees have enough stores. If you haven't done an Oxlic Acid treatment then you need to do it soon before the queen starts laying and while the hive is broodless.
Get into the habit of ‘hefting’ your hives. This will allow you to estimate the level of stores in the hive. Hefting is method of ‘lifting’ the hive, to judge the weight of the hive + bees + stores available.
Make sure you keep an eye on how much food your bees have. Brood rearing will start in earnest soon and if food is not available the bees will starve
Make sure you have emergency food available, just in case
Planning for the season ahead
Enroll yourself on a beekeeping course; this would be a beginner's course for your first year or one of the BBKA exams/assessments for those who already have bees
Decide what you want to do in the apiary this year; do you want to do any queen rearing? Move hives? Requeen any colonies?
Decide how you intend to deal with control of mites, swarming and colony increase
Check your equipment
Clean up (if not already done) and paint hives
Sterilise frames with acetic acid
Check stock and buy any new equipment you need
Sort out your work box
Use drawing pins to identify which brood frames you have replaced
Fondant is useful for helping bees through the winter months
Brood rearing will often restart this month and will place extra burden on the colonies' winter reserves. If there is a suitably mild day, check quickly for remaining honey reserves and if necessary be prepared to feed sugar or candy.
With brood rearing commencing again, the mite load within the colony will start to increase so this is a good time, if you haven’t done so already, to check your mite drop. Heavy infestations will require a spring treatment of the colony, e.g. by oxalic acid sublimation.
Use the varroa calculator on BeeBase here to calculate mite drop
In some areas the first of the spring bulbs are flowering so as the new seasons pollen loads return on workers, allow them unrestricted access; remove mouse guards if fitted to the hive entrance.
Whilst things are still reasonably quiet, make the most of the time to put together new frames and hives and do any cleaning/organising you didn't get around to in January.
By this time most of us will have some idea as to how many of our bees have come through the winter. This is the time of the year when we lose most bees. Just because you see bees flying from the entrance does not mean all is well! Your bees have not survived the winter until you see a hive with a good number of bees and brood.
Colonies should be showing signs of early spring activity. Queens should be laying patches of eggs in the warmth of the cluster and workers will be increasingly going on cleansing flights. On the milder days, workers may also be seen bringing in pollen from early flowering plants like snowdrops, crocuses and winter heaths.
Around the middle of the month, varroa trays should be inserted under open-mesh floors to minimize heat loss from the cluster. This will go some way to assisting the early brood rearing that should have begun, as well as allow you to monitor mite drop.
Regular checks of apiaries should be carried out to ensure that any surrounding fencing is stock-proof, no vandalism has taken place and there is no damage to the hives.
Each hive should be hefted to check on the quantity of food stores remaining.
Varroa inspection tray showing a dead varroa mite along with other debris
Check for the following signs at the hive entrance
There should be a considerable amount of fine wax particles from the uncapping of stores. If large pieces of wax are on the alighting board, you may have a mouse in residence!
Spots of faeces may be evident on the front of the brood chamber. This can be caused by the bees’ long confinement due to severe weather, therefore preventing cleansing (toilet) flights. It may also be dysentery caused by fermenting stores or Nosema disease. Nosema is treatable, so if you see signs of dysentery, have your bees checked.
If the weather is mild enough and bees are flying freely, bringing in large pollen loads and you can detect warmth when placing the back of your hand against the crown board, then all should be well.
If there are fewer bees flying from one hive compared to others in the apiary or no flying bees at all, a quick check can be made by raising the crown board and having a peek inside.
Varroa boards should be checked for the presence of varroa, pending possible treatment early next month.
Bees which are short of food must be fed syrup using a contact feeder.
Rapid, Miller or Ashforth feeders are unsuitable for early feeding because the bees will not go up over the cold ‘weir’ to reach the syrup.
This month bees will be collecting nectar and pollen from flowering currant, dandelion, willow, cherry, gorse and blackthorn, leading to rapid colony build-up.
Continue to monitor the food supply and the mite drop on the hive inserts.
On the alighting board, or outside the hive, hard grey old pollen pellets the size of a cell may be seen. If crushed between the fingers they will break up and show layers. Sometimes a trace of colour might still be visible. The appearance of old pollen pellets is a good indication that the bees are expanding their brood nest.
Chalk Brood mummies may also be observed at the hive entrance. These do not crumble into layers, they are usually smaller and flatter than pollen pellets and are often recognizable as poorly developed pupae. Chalk brood can appear if bees have wintered in damp conditions and can be seen in nuclei which are short of bees. In other words, where the bees have been under stress. Some strains of bees are more prone to it than others. If widespread, chalk brood can hinder colony buildup. Apiguard encourages hygienic conditions within the hive and may reduce the occurrence of chalk brood. In severe cases the colony should be requeened from a different strain and any badly affected combs replaced with acetic acid sterilised combs.
If you need to treat for varroa in spring, it should be carried out before the hives have honey supers added. Do not use Apiguard or any other thymol-based treatment prior to the honey flow as its odour can remain in honey for some time.
Towards the end of April or when the sun is warm and there is little wind, a first inspection can be made. The hive entrance should be gently smoked, then wait a few minutes before opening the hive in order to allow time for the smoke to take effect. Gently lever up the crown board and give it a sharp shake above the open hive to dislodge the queen back into the brood chamber IF she has been driven onto the crown board by the smoke.This inspection should be swift so that you do not chill the brood. The first thing to do at this first inspection is to find the queen. She is more easily spotted at this time because there are fewer bees in the colony and as there are no, or few, drones, she is the largest bee. She is likely to be found on a frame containing eggs in the top brood chamber. She might not be the queen which you are expecting to find; The queen that you saw during your last autumn inspection may have been marked and/or clipped, but a younger unmarked queen may now be in the hive, the old one having been superseded in late autumn.
April is the best time of the year to mark the queen. Use a ‘press-on’ type queen cage to mark her, aka "crown of thorns". When marking, ensure that you allow the paint to reach the hard surface of the queen’s thorax. If you only paint the thorax hairs, the paint will very soon wear off. Once marked carefully lift the cage a small amount but keep the queen in the cage until the paint has dried.
Tips for the first inspection
When looking for a queen, concentrate solely on that task. When found, and marked, you can leave her in the cage until you have carried out other tasks, so that you know her whereabouts. Don’t forget to release the queen before closing the hive
The remainder of the brood chamber/s can now be checked quickly. It is important that you refresh your memory on the appearance of healthy, sealed and unsealed brood so that any abnormality can be given a closer examination
Check that there are nice areas of eggs and larvae also slabs of sealed brood with few ‘missed’ cells. Continue to check for signs of disease
Check that the colony has enough food to last it until your next visit
Now is the chance to remove misshapen combs or combs clogged with old hard pollen and replace them with drawn combs, if you have them! If not, only replace one or at the most two with foundation. The renewal of three or four brood combs per year helps to cut down disease
Do not split the brood nest or you will give the colony a severe setback. Let the brood expand naturally.
Carefully close up the hive and put some insulation e.g. an old carpet over the crown board. You need to keep the brood as warm as possible at this time of year.
And Finally, fill in your hive records
Continue to monitor varroa numbers by checking the hive inserts and/or uncapping drone brood with an uncapping fork. Be careful not to kill too much drone brood or you may seriously reduce the drone gene-pool which will be available for queen mating later in the season
Swarming will be upon us by next month so you should now work out what you are going to do when you see your first queen cells. It is no good to wait until you first find them you must have a plan to act upon when you do!
Marking a queen using a "crown of thorns"
A frame with multiple queen cells
MAY – welcome to the swarming season!
"A swarm of bees in May
Is worth a load of hay;
A swarm of bees in June
Is worth a silver spoon;
A swarm of bees in July
Is not worth a fly"
May brings the start of the spring honey flow from sources such as oilseed rape, sycamore, horse chestnut, bluebell, top fruit, etc. and in order to derive maximum benefit from these the colonies must be strong. Indeed, the beekeeper’s skill is in keeping colonies as strong as possible from May until August.
We have no way of predicting what the weather is going to be like or how long good foraging conditions will last, therefore you must endeavor to maintain your colonies as strong as possible so that they can make the most of any flow. This means that you must deter or delay swarm preparations at least until the spring flow is over and exercise effective control over swarming if or when it comes.
Never open a hive unless you have a reason for doing so and have a plan worked out in advance for what you are going to do and have what equipment you may require at hand.
In early May the colonies should be checked in order to see that the queen has not suffered any ill effects. There is no need to find the queen, just check for the presence of patches of eggs.
There should now be drones in the hive. Bees work best when they have some drones, but you don’t want too many. Drones do not become fertile until they are twelve to thirteen days old.
Check that the queen has plenty of space in which to lay. A queen excluder and the first honey super are put on top. This super should be of drawn comb if you have it so that when the flow starts, honey will be stored in the super and not allowed to clog up space in the brood chamber.
After a week of the honey flow more breeding and super room should be provided and as the season progresses.
Make sure that there is enough super room for storage of honey and for the bees to ‘hang nectar out to ripen’ in spare cells.
Tips for swarm management and queen cells
Colonies are checked weekly to ensure there is enough super room and that swarming preparations are not being made
If queen cell cups, with nothing in them are found, this is quite normal and need not be removed
If queen cups are being extended and contain an egg, or more importantly, a fed larva, then you must assume that swarming will take place soon after the queen cells are sealed on the ninth day after the egg was laid
Be careful cutting out queen cells, make sure there are eggs present (i.e. you have a laying queen) or you could render the stock queenless
If cells are removed they will probably be rebuilt the following week and you must remedy the situation using your chosen method of swarm control
The queen cells which were found first of all will contain larvae properly fed from birth therefore they will produce the best queens and should be used if you intend to breed from that stock
An artificial swarm is probably the best way to proceed if you are a beginner
If you are lucky enough to catch a swarm hive it on foundation and leave for a few days before feeding it well.
A swarm is one of the best ways of obtaining good drawn out comb from your bees!
December - Getting ready for winter
As the year draws to a close the bees should be clustering quietly in the hive with plenty of stores to see them through the rest of the winter. The queen will have reduced her laying and, especially if she is a dark queen, and the weather is cold she may cease laying altogether. After the winter solstice on 21st December the queen’s laying will slowly increase with the lengthening days.
This is the time to treat as, ideally, there is no brood and all the Varroa mites are on the adult bees and susceptible to treatment. Oxalic Acid is the substance to use and is now available as an authorised treatment as Api-Bioxal which comes as a sachet containing powder. It can be applied either as a trickle in sugar syrup or by vaporisation/sublimation.
Read the instructions carefully and follow them precisely.
To trickle, 500ml of 50% syrup is used for one packet. It is stated that this will treat ten hives as 5ml is trickled per seam of bees. However as few hives contain ten seams of bees at this time of year it will usually treat significantly more hives. Take care not to exceed 5ml per full seam.
Vaporisation requires a special device to heat the powder. Be very careful not to inhale any of the fumes.
Oxalic Acid can be used at any time of year when there is no brood, but should only be used once per hive per year.
Check the weight of the hives and place fondant on any that are light.