‘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.