A month ago, I found that my neglected hive had built its own propolis entrance reducer since I forgot to add one last fall. As temperatures warm up with the season, my theory is that the girls will remove and reshape the propolis as needed. Here are two shots, about one month apart and one month closer to summer. Do you notice any changes?
‘Tis no time for inaction. The dandelions are blooming and neighborhood fruit trees are covered with frizzy flowers, all of which means SWARM SEASON is upon us!
So giddy up, it’s time to dig into my hives and see how they fared the winter.
Spring is unpredictable in Albuquerque with great swings from night to day, so I try not to open my hives AT ALL until late March when temperatures stabilize. This restraint prevents me from destroying clustering bees or chilling brood but it’s also a fine line — how late is too late? If I delay too long, will the colony swarm?
What the landing board can tell you…
To slake my curiosity, I watch the landing board for weeks before opening the hive. I’m looking for 2 things:
- Pollen on the legs of bees entering the hive: If worker bees are carrying pollen inside the hive, this likely means a) there are fresh larvae inside needing pollen and b) those workers aren’t robber bees.
- Lots of orienting bees in the afternoon: When temps warm up each afternoon I should see the familiar arc of new bees orienting themselves near the hive entrance. If I don’t see this but there’s pollen entering the hive, something is keeping the queen from laying aggressively.
First… a health check.
Once it’s consistently warm enough (above 60° F), I’m ready for my first hive check of the season. Here’s what I look for to determine the overall health of the hive:
- Bees: Are the brood boxes full of bees? If so, this means a strong hive with enough bodies to possibly split the hive.
- Pollen: Are the bees finding and storing pollen in the hive? Pollen = protein for new larvae, so it’s a critical component in building colony numbers.
- Capped Brood: Is the queen laying? The ultimate goal of the first Spring check is to determine whether the queen is solidly laying worker brood. A solid brood pattern looks like the image below, with worker brood as far as the eye can see with only a few holes for heater bees.
Then… a swarm check.
While we’re in there, let’s gauge the colony’s likelihood of swarming. Here are the indicators I look for:
- Drones or capped drone brood cells: If there are drones walking around, consider making a hive split. If there are capped drone cells (but no live drones), start preparing for a split, maybe 1 or 2 weeks out.
- Swarm cells: If the hive contains swarm cells, split ASAP. In fact, some experts say that the presence of swarm cells means it may already be too late as the hive is determined to swarm regardless of your interventions.
In the case of my hive check this weekend, I found drone cells (but no live drones) and queen cups (but no swarm cells). In about a week, I’ll go in and split this hive in two. More on that technique below…
With a strong disease-free hive, the main goals for Spring maintenance are to provide room for brood & honey and prevent swarming. Here’s how I manage both:
If the hive doesn’t have enough empty frames in the brood chamber, the queen can’t lay eggs. And if the super (assuming you’ve overwintered with 3 boxes) doesn’t have empty frames, there’s nowhere to store honey. In my case, I had both problems. Nowhere to lay eggs and nowhere to store new honey. My hive was totally honeybound.
So, I decided to “checkerboard” the hive by alternating empty and full frames in the super and upper brood box (but keeping existing frames with brood next to each other for warmth. It still gets chilly at night in Albuquerque).
How to checkerboard a hive:
If your hive is burgeoning with bees, drone brood, and swarm cells, make a split ASAP. Otherwise, start preparing for a split in 1 or 2 weeks.
How to make a split:
If your brood pattern is spotty or the hive is aggressive (in urban areas, it’s important to promote docile bee genetics), make a call to your favorite queen breeder and order new royalty for your hive.
Score another victory for lazy beekeeping! Either it blew away or I just plain forgot to add one, but regardless, when I went to visit the Candelaria Farms apiary, there was no entrance reducer on the one surviving hive. The girls had managed on their own and here’s how…
But first, what is an entrance reducer anyway?
Many beekeepers, myself included, reduce the size of the hive opening each winter to give the girls an edge in controlling pests, ventilation, and more. It’s a cheap, quick, and commonly-used intervention.
What happens if I don’t use an entrance reducer?
The colony gathers propolis to reduce the entrance as it pleases. As you can see in the entrance to this hive, my girls simply formed columns of propolis this past winter to ventilate and protect the hive according to their needs.
I’m going to leave these sticky columns intact until the heat of Summer and see how the girls adjust them to suit their collective desire. Watch for photos…
The City of Albuquerque is seeking a beekeeping intern!
Besides getting free beekeeping training from TBH superstar Les Crowder, you’ll also get to hang with me out at the Candelaria Farms hives in Albuquerque’s North Valley. It’s a rural quiet spot amidst the City’s bluster; a place that creates moments of comet-like beauty such as a flock of Sandhill Cranes flying overhead as you walk up to check the hives between client meetings or classes or otherwise dreary deadlines. The result? Pure connected creaturely bliss.
[Download an internship application | Deadline is March 14, 2012]
Happy holidays, fellow beekeepers, readers, and honey lovers! Thank you for reading, commenting, and sharing your experiences here on my site. Here’s to 2012 supporting healthy hives full of rich floral honey to share with friends, family and the peanut butter-honey sandwich eaters in your life.
What do bees do all winter anyway? According to my elementary school nieces, here’s what goes down inside a hive full of girl bees waiting all winter for a sip of spring nectar…
In Ella’s words:
If I we’re a bee I would sleep all winter and I would decorate my house with flowers also I would decorate it with snowmen pictures in the summer I will collect pollin from flowers!
According to Nina:
If I we’re a bee I would paint my house with gold and black paint my bed would be lime green and my job would be to pollinate I would do anything to become a bee for just one hour all I would like to do is to soar I just hope they have cherrys to eat if not I would eat honey bees are fassanating creatures.
Sasha’s thoughts on bees:
Have you ever thought what it would be like to be a bee? I have and I think it would be awesome to be a bee for even 1 second! If I were a bee, in the winter, I would chatter with my friends all night as we snuggled up in our honeycomb, trying to stay warm. My friends and I would drink warm honey all day long. It would be HEAVEN for me! I would have a smokey fire in my room to keep me warm all winter. I would probably get loney, though. I would miss my parents and my sister bees. I would especially miss my baby brother bee, Luka!!! After the cold winter, I would get up and smell the fresh Spring air. I’d spread my wings, leap into the air, and gather pollen for the queen to make honey. PERFECT!!
It’s quite simple really. My winterizing philosophy is a three-pronged approach; the holy trinity of hive survival, if you will, and it goes like this:
- Go into winter strong: If a hive is weak, I’ll combine it with another before November using the newspaper method. If I only have one hive, I’ll combine with another bee friend. If none of the above work, then I’ll feed sugar syrup for October and November. And I DEFINITELY overwinter with 3 deeps. See my earlier post for details on overwintering with 3 deep boxes.
- Reduce the entrance: Using one of those wooden entrance reducers, I’ll close up the front door a bit so that the girls can better defend themselves from opportunists.
- Allow for ventilation: I’m of the mind that the bees best regulate their hive themselves and so my job is to allow them this ability. In other words, I leave a crack in the cover that sits on top of the screened top board and otherwise don’t insulate or tape the hive. This enables the girls to add or remove propolis depending on how much ventilation they want throughout the winter. In Albuquerque, as our temperatures vary greatly from November to March, this gives the bees the chance to decide what they need at any given time.
And that’s it. No fancy heating pads or blankets over here, because I want to support bee genetics that don’t rely on human intervention to survive the winter. It’s a bit of tough love perhaps, but my hope (for the bees) is that this non-interventionist approach builds local bee genetics that are gentle with humans but tough when it comes to surviving mites and winter.
Good luck, girls! May the strongest hives survive.
Sugar? How very unauthentic. How very, dare I say, un-American.
This Thanksgiving, why not go old-school with a healthy dose of honey added to your traditional recipes? European colonists brought honeybees to North America in 1622, so you can be sure that cooking with honey from your local beekeeper is the original Patriot Act.