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Spring hive checks - what do you see?

April 10, 2019

Bees need to be fed as soon as the snow goes and right through to midsummer

This first installment of a video captures some of the information useful to beekeepers as they observe the beginning of spring activity in the hive. It was recorded at an April Meet The Beekeeper evening just east of Edmonton. Part 2 provides additional information on why your bees are either dark or light fawn and on colony development as it comes out of winter. 

Where are your bees?

When you remove the lid for a spring inspection, the bees should be in the top box, having moved up from the bottom chamber. The queen and bees by Labour Day should be in the bottom box because the top one has been filling with honey and pressuring the colony to move down. You should see them “downstairs” as they go into September each year, but by spring, they will have moved up as the honey stores are consumed. They will also move more towards the outside frames to reach honey that the cluster could not reach while trying to stay warm in the centre.

Top entrance required

When the bees are in the top box in spring, they need a top entrance for easy movement in and out of the hive. They could go all the way to the bottom entrance where there’s likely to be quite a few dead bees in their way, but it’s possible they will become exhausted and die.

The beekeeping cycle’s beekeeping calendar shows the natural increase and decline of colony populations and productivity over the course of a year, starting in September.  This cycle is applicable for the Canadian West from Manitoba through to the Edson area of Alberta, and then again into Merritt, Kelowna and Fort St John (but not the West Coast).The chart shows a rough estimate by month of hive populations and weights.

Foraging and feeding

People worry about whether to continue feeding their bees when natural flows start in spring. Don't worry - keep feeding and the bees will figure it out.  Trees with spring catkins will deliver a significant amount of nectar and-or pollen. But while they flower for two to three weeks, they are only useful for the bees for four or six days of that time due to cold, wind, snow or rain. So when you start feeding in March, plan on keeping syrup and pollen patties on all the way through to midsummer’s day. All you need is three grey days in June and the bees say OK let’s shut it down. If your queen stops laying in June, there will be no honey crop. If she is killed or decides to swarm, it is too late to re-queen and have a honey crop.

Summer dearth

The main flow for us is from canola, alfalfa and sweet clover. There is a gap between these beginning to flower, and the early willows and dandelions finishing their blooms. Alfalfa might flower quite early, but you have to have extraordinarily good conditions for it to produce nectar, and then it only produces from about noon to 2 pm when the sun is strongest. So all morning there is nothing for the bees to do, even if there is an alfalfa field right next door. If we get rain and thunderstorms, those wet flowers are no good for the bees for 24-48 hours. Good flying days are essential, along with constant fresh supplies of syrup and pollen patties in the hive, until the longest day. After the longest day, you have pretty much made it, as the queen then starts to reduce laying due to more cells being filled with nectar.

The core of beekeeping

Putting “pressure” on the queen for successful laying from now until midsummer is what beekeeping is all about. All the rest happens by itself. You cannot influence honey production other than keeping your focus on what is happening in the hive and what the bees need from March to late June.

It can be cold and wet in June, which restricts foraging flights. Meanwhile the queen is laying 3,400 eggs a day, with a need for four pounds of honey every day. If you get 24 hours where the bees cannot leave, they stop the queen from laying because they realize they can’t support that level of production. So don’t stop feeding your bees until the longest day!

If you do lose your queen in June, you are basically done for the year. You are into survival mode, just ensuring there is enough honey to see the remaining colony through the winter.

Meet The Beekeeper nights are free. Participants should register online, and at the same time sign the online waiver if they are attending for the first time. Bring your own bee suit and gloves, or pick up whatever you need at or at our retail store, 5418 - 136 Avenue, Edmonton.

In the meantime, don’t forget to subscribe to our Facebook, Twitter and YouTube channels for all the latest news and tips.  

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