Spring Hive Check: What to look for + how to prevent swarms

25 Mar

‘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.

First hive check of the year

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.

A gorgeous brood pattern -- solid worker brood as far as the eye can see.

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…

Problem solving.

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:

Provide room

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:

Split hives

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:

Requeen

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.

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8 Responses to “Spring Hive Check: What to look for + how to prevent swarms”

  1. Greg March 25, 2012 at 6:13 pm #

    Hi Chantal,
    Your post was very timely. Our bees have been very active for the past few weeks since the weather here in Chicago has been unusually warm. Our spring has arrived about 4 weeks early with many trees already flowering last week. I had planned on checking on our bees today.

    Lots and lots of bees have been coming back with pollen for the past week. I didn’t see any swarm cells, although there was plenty of brood and honey. The honey was mostly in the top super, about 90% full, although nothing was capped. I did the checker boarding between the third super and a fourth super. I had not herd of the checker boarding before, but it makes a lot of sense to me. Thanks for the advice.
    Greg

    • mistress beek March 25, 2012 at 6:50 pm #

      Hi Greg. Congrats on a successful overwintering! That first check of the season is always the most stressful for me, so good news is glad tidings indeed.

      How’s your queen laying? And how empty/full were the brood boxes? And do you see any drones walking around or drone cells at the bottom of your frames?

  2. Jessie Brown March 4, 2014 at 12:30 pm #

    I just learned about Heater Bees. Thanks Chantal!

  3. christyp9 March 17, 2014 at 5:20 pm #

    You talked about seeing queen cups but not swarm cells. What is the difference? I understand the difference between supercedure and swarm cells, but not queen cups and swarm cells. I thought they were the same. I take it they are not.

  4. christyp9Christina Parlapiano March 17, 2014 at 6:22 pm #

    What is the difference between queen cups and swarm cells? I know the difference between supercedure cells and swarm cells but not queen cups and swarm cells. I thought they were the same. Thanks for the info.

  5. goodbuzzbees July 13, 2015 at 3:01 pm #

    Reblogged this on goodbuzzbees and commented:
    I love this! Really good information and well written.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Our First Ever Spring Hive Check | - April 18, 2012

    […] of purpose, we added swarming to our list of concerns. Mistress Beek did an informative, timely how-to post on spring hive checks. She offers advice on what to look for before opening the hive: Pollen on […]

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