Spring 2011 and the first proper apiary check of the year

Yesterday was the warmest day of the year so far, and whilst the thermometer was hitting 18 degrees in the sun, the bees were very busy flying. Unlike my earlier apiary visits this year they are now collecting huge amounts of pollen to feed to the brood – a good sign that the hives are healthy and that the queens have survived the winter and the colonies are building up strength again.

It really lifts your spirits to arrive at the hives and see the amount of activity around them. This to me really signifies more than anything that spring has arrived and the bees are flying in heavily loaded with sulphur-yellow pollen from the nearby Willow trees.

First inspection of the year 2011

I have been down to check on the bees on a few occasions over the long winter months and have hefted the hives to test for the weight of supplies left, my in-experience unfortunately gets the better of me here and I decided to feed candy to the bees despite there being sufficient honey left in the hives. A colony can starve with lots of honey stores untouched simply because they tend to travel up in the hive looking for food rather than going sideways to find the full frames.  A cake of candy placed over the centre of the hive on the clearer board takes care of that and the bees had polished off all that I have fed them in the last few weeks. This early feeding has allowed the queens to start laying earlier and build up the worker numbers prior to the start of the spring nectar flow.

Bee candy

There is always the temptation to peek inside the hive whilst checking the state of the candy in late February and early March but the queen will have started laying eggs in late December or early January and there is a very real risk of chilling the brood and killing the new workers that are being prepared so that they can replace the bees that have over- wintered with the queen and are ready to fly in time with the start of the spring nectar flow in order to bring in much needed supplies after the winter.

The last full hive check was back in late September and the bees have been hiding away over the winter months, clustered around the queen and using minimal energy to survive. The hive temperature was bought back up to around 34 degrees in the brood area when the queen started laying eggs and the stores would have started to diminish as the young were fed. The last few weeks leading up to spring are the highest risk period for the death of a colony through starvation.

A great piece of advice that I was given was that every apiary visit should have a set purpose. You can tell a lot about the condition and health of the colony through observation without opening a hive, but if you are going to intrude into the colony you need to have a good reason.

The first visit of the year is to check the overall health of the colony, to see if the queen is present either through spotting her or through the presence of eggs, pupa and sealed brood, to establish how much brood is present (how many frames does it cover), is there any evidence of brood disease, are there sufficient supplies to sustain the colony (both honey and pollen) and is there still enough space in the hive (a colony can build up size surprisingly early in the year and a crowded colony will have a tendency to swarm early).

Changing the hive floors

The visit also involves a little bit of house work, replacing the hive floor with a clean one or cleaning the floors that are there is you don’t have a spare. This is done by moving the hive boxes and removing the solid floor, scrapping off the mite, pollen, wax and bits off dead insect and then running a blowtorch (or heat-gun) over the floor just enough to gently scorch the wood. This makes sure that any parasites (or eggs) that are in the hive wood are destroyed.

Spring inspection of hive

Opening the hives one at a time is a great joy, the familiar smells of wax and honey and the sounds of the hives changing as the bees communicate never fails to  impress. I used a little smoke to pacify the bees, although this may not be that necessary at this time of year whilst the colonies are still small it gives you a feeling of confidence knowing your smoker is lit and to hand if the bees decide to get a little too amorous! The bees have been busy sealing up the boxes with propolis over the winter months and the hive tool (a large flat bladed chisel) is given a little extra leverage to part them for the first time in the year. The bees are all going about their set tasks and take little notice of the beekeeper as he carries out his quick inspection of each frame.

I have been lucky this year, although I fed the bees syrup and treated for varroa mite back in early September you never know if the colonies will pull through, and this year all three have. The queens have been busy, and although I didn’t have the hives open long enough to spot them, there were about 5 frames covered in eggs, pupa and sealed brood present in each hive and still plenty of last year’s honey and this year’s pollen stored. There was no visible evidence of brood disease so I got on with the task of changing floors. I currently use solid floors with varroa mesh inserts above on two of my hives, the other has the more expensive purpose built varroa floor from Thornes, and so I only had to change two floors. It amazes me how much pollen seems to be lost through the mesh, with large streaks of bright yellow pollen formed in line with the arrangement of frames above, radiating out from the hive entrance.

Willow pollen on hive floor Pollen on hive floor Hive floors cleaned with a blow torch

With the checks and house work complete the hives are sealed back up. With the colonies still low in numbers I have left the entrance reducer blocks in as this makes the hive easier to defend but soon these will be removed to allow more movement of bees in and out of the hive and better ventilation as the worker numbers increase. I also left the woodpecker protection in place, this doesn’t seem to bother the bees at all but would still discourage a hungry green woodpecker from turning my hives into matchsticks (which they do with great efficiency!).

Entrance blocks left in Woodpecker protection

The next hive checks will be mid-April as there is little risk of the colony being large enough to consider swarming before then, and following that the checks will be carried out on a 7-10 day frequency to try and prevent, or more probably deal with, potential swarming as it arises until late July.

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