Hello to you and the idea behind this short series of articles is how to build up colonies to a good strength and how to take advantage of the same.
Whether you are interested in the challenge of the moors, or have wondered if you can rear a queen I hope to stimulate your thoughts and maybe even inspire you to take on a little bit more beekeeping than merely keeping bees.
There is more information on my website: www.poly-hive.co.uk
Early Spring Management.
I know. I empathise, truly I do but……..please read before lighting the smoker for the first time this season and lets have a wee think about what we are planning.
Oh it was just a wee peep was it? Uh huh. Ah ken ye ken……. The wee peep can do a fair bit of harm so the first thing to take on board is this. You only open a hive with the intent to help the bees: not to satisfy your curiosity. Its the most basic of principles but probably the hardest to take to heart.
Have the bees survived the Winter? Well if you did the right things the answer is yes they probably have. Do they need stores? Not if you gave them fondant which they should still be consuming. You can please yourself but when I give fondant I refer to a whacking great slab weighing a good 2 kilos. If I disturb the bees in mid winter I do so with the intent of not having to repeat the exercise. I will check again in Feb so that is a gap of some 6 to 8 weeks between checks.
So it is early Spring and a bonny March day. The bees are flying but not much pollen arriving in. You may be in an area where pollen is abundant. My last apiary had dozens of willows just a brief flight away but up the heid of a Highland glen that is unlikely so now you are a beekeeper you might want to have a closer look at what is growing around you.
One dodge you can adopt is to plant crocus. Oh and nudge the neighbours too as they are a good spring pollen source for the bees. Just gently remind them that hybrids are of no usefulness to the hives. I had a quiet word with a planting committee for a local town and they were not aware of this and seemed a bit surprised, so a word here and there… may be very productive.
If you are not in the perfect location and it’s turning into the classic Scottish Spring which is to say driving rain with intermittent sleet and the odd clap of thunder heralding a gale of wind then how are the bees going to progress in the face of all of that? Well dear Beekeeper this is where you come in.
What issues have the bees to over come with some help? In this situation I am assuming, and yes I know the dangers thereof, the colony is in good order in a dry hive and Q+ which is a short hand for Queen Right. Which in turn means there is a mated laying queen present and able to do what she is
expected to which is lay numerous eggs which will hatch into quality workers.
First of all the bees may be thirsty and in need of water to dilute their stores whether honey or fondant. Also from a morale point of view nothing perks a colony up like some income. Even better of course is free income. Bit like finding a tenner on a deserted street.
To that end some spring syrup (one pound to one pint) fed in a non leaking frame feeder is a good plan. Many like the so called rapid feeders but frankly I view them with suspicion for these two reasons. One is they can leak and that means fluid cascading through the bees, and secondly they are used with a crown board with a hole in it. I like my crown boards to be solid and to have either a poly roof over it or a good 2” + of insulation to keep the bees cosy.
Bees love warmth. Over many years now I have observed where they cluster in poly hives and where swarms start to build comb and it is usually next to the side wall. Why? It is the warmest spot they can find. In wooden units it is in the middle of the brood box as far from the cold that they can get. Major difference in behaviour. The old adage let the bees tell you holds true. My bees are currently clustered at the front of the hive against the right hand side (from their perspective) so they have two warm walls to “lean” against. Would they chose that spot in a timber hive? No doubt one will out of “courseness” but personally I have never seen it.
As an aside people then moan but where will I put my bee escape? Frankly for the usefulness of having a clearer board as a cover for supers in winter in store the cost of a home made clearer board is pennies. I will return to this later.
The other item the bees are needing is a reliable pollen source. In past days I bought sterilised pollen and made up pollen patties. That source seems to have gone so commercial type pollen feeds seem the sensible way to go. Yes they cost but the cost of a lost colony in spring is far dearer. As mentioned already if you are in the fat lands with good pollen resources then no need to put it on but if in harder climes and locations it is well worth thinking about.
One warning though once you start to feed pollen and syrup keep it going as the bees will push on and will be relying on that extra income to produce your extra bees.
Whilst not everyone aims for heather many do or will in time as it is a wonderful honey to achieve and by building up the colonies early in the
season leads on to (if they decide to) early swarming which in turn means early mating and that in turn leads to good colony build up for the heather is good time. The best colony for the heather is as strong as you can make it.
Now I am going to be “controversial” though the following was taught me by a very commercial Bee Farmer and in those circles this is quite normal. In amateur circles for some reason it is considered to be totally wrong to do. It works for me and if it works for me there is no reason with judgement that it won’t work for you.
It is called working the brood or plus one and it goes like this.
In early Spring colonies are often honey bound which is to say the nest is confined by stores. In order to give the colony room the stores are bruised with the flat of the hive tool so as to expose the contents to the bees. A week later most likely if the weather has been good the colony will have consumed the stores and the queen hopefully will have begun to lay it up.
I begin this when the bees are up to four frames of brood. It is not a technique for beginners as it takes judgement to know which colonies can cope with it and which are just not yet strong enough. Nor can one blithely assume that a week later another comb can be treated as again it takes judgement.
On saying that I proceed with bruising two frames on one side each. These I place either side of the nest and a week later I expect them to be being worked by the colony. If the colony is strong enough I then bruise the other two sides and turn them round so the stores face the nest and the new brood faces stores.
This is the tricky one as it is possible to set the colony back at this point but if it is accepted by the bees then from four brood combs the unit is up to 6.
The next move is a repeat and as the mature brood hatches and the strength grows then this is repeated judiciously until there are 8 brood frames full. I should also add that if there are half frames of brood I again bruise the stores to encourage the bees to prepare the cells for the Q. At which point I would add another brood box below to enable the colony to keep expanding. As my National poly broods normally take 10 combs I am looking for 16 to 18
frames of brood to produce a good strength of colony.
At the 8 frames stage I put a frame of foundation in the middle. I fully expect it to be drawn and laid up by the next inspection. A very effective way to get comb drawn for you.
I have been asked times where the stores go, and the only answer I can come logically to is that they consume the stores, they do not move it elsewhere as there is nowhere for it to go. In effect the stores are converted into brood which is precisely what is needed to get the colonies up to a decent strength whether for OSR or the heather season to come.
The above system works well in the right hands and as far as I know I have not lost brood to chilling whether in timber units or poly. However it DOES require judgement so if in doubt try this.
When you have a colony on 6 or seven frames of brood put an empty comb either side and see what happens. If you want to play safe then do it on one side and see. The following week the inner sides should be full of eggs and young brood. If not then they are too weak to cope. However if all goes well then if they are not working the outer sides a week later turn them round and by the following week there should be a brood nest of at least 8 frames. When you have the extra confidence from that exercise then the next season you might like to try what I have outlined above.
When the colony is on at least 8 frames of brood a super may be thought about. Remember if a flow starts and there is no storage space available then they will start to back fill the brood combs and that is the last thing you want to happen. Remember nectar is mosty water and the bees have to have space to spread it out to literally dry.
What catches beginners out more than anything is the sheer speed at which a strong colony can produce, so remember you need at least 3 supers per colony. I have seen a Langstroth super filled and capped in less than 5 days and the bees were hanging out the front door due to lack of room.