An informative and sometimes humorous column published in
The New Zealand Beekeeper Journal
Italian queens will lay in all the spare cells that are covered and heated by the bee cluster, whereas Carniolan queens will lay right to the perimeter of the area covered by the bees.
If the weather is good, with no very cold spells, all the larvae will be fed and the hive will expand enormously.
The ability for the bees to expand in numbers is attributable to an oversupply of nutrition: good pollen with a protein content above 20% with all the essential amino acids. Commercial beekeepers have long known the value of willows in the spring. Bees get a boost from the pollen, and sometimes can put on a super of nectar that sets up the hives for the next month.
It doesn’t take a great number of trees to supply a hive’s nutritional requirements. Just one tree can support five to 10 colonies. The late Merv Farrington kept bees on State Highway 56 just out of Palmerston North for years. This is open dairy country, with perhaps 10 houses and gardens within a half mile. He found that one mature willow made a huge difference to the development of his hives in spring.
It’s important to know when various pollen and nectar sources will come into flower. Dr Linda Newstrom-Lloyd’s research with willows should have some direct benefits to beekeepers. Pussy willow generally is the first to flower, and has male and female trees. Males supply pollen while the female supplies pollen and nectar. It’s best to have one of each within 100 metres of the apiary if you can. Following on the pussy willow, a number of other willows flower: these are the ones that provide most of the spring nectar as well as pollen.
A lot of the really good spring sources come from trees on the regional councils’ noxious plant (pest plant) lists. I can understand why cracked willow is on these lists as it blocks waterways, but it’s also beneficial in that it helps clean the water by taking nutrients from it. Many willows don’t block waterways but as council staff or contractors usually don’t distinguish between good and bad willows, they will cut the lot.
Another very good source is hawthorn. If you live in an area first populated by English or Irish immigrant farmers, you could have hawthorn hedges. This tree provides both pollen and nectar but is disliked by apple and pear growers as it can carry fireblight. I was impressed by the number of neatly trimmed hawthorn hedges in Tasmania. Their farmers haven’t forgotten the benefits of providing shelterbelts for stock, and beekeepers also benefit.
Commercial beekeepers cannot always place apiaries near good sources of pollen; however, commercial supplements are available that come without the threat of spreading disease as can happen when storing pollen frames.
For the hobbyist in an urban area, numerous spring flowers and ornamental trees produce heaps of pollen. Ceanothus is an excellent source of pollen and has a very showy blue flower. You tend to see more of these in the cooler areas, especially in the South Island, where they provide the first real source of pollen.
Adequate nutrition allows the bees to produce drones and when the hive gets really populated and restricted for space, the bees will produce queen cells in preparation of swarming. We need abundant pollen, which results in plenty of early mature drones to produce queens to fill splits and to requeen hives that have older failing queens.
Producing queens is an art but bees do it naturally, so we use these instincts to produce our queen cells. The most important ingredient in producing queens is to have lots of nurse bees with pollen in their ventriculus (midgut) so they produce highly nutritious royal jelly from their hypopharyngeal glands.
If there isn’t a lot of pollen coming in when you want to produce queens, scrape down a pollen frame to the midrib. Mix it with the honey stored around the pollen to make a sticky goo so that the bees consume it immediately. You now have all the nurse bees with lots of royal jelly ready to feed developing queen cells.
Generally bees produce queen cells to replace an aging queen. Through overcrowding, the nurse bees may not be getting enough pheromone to suppress their ovary development, or they may not be picking up the pheromone from the queen’s feet as she moves through the hive. Either factor will stimulate the development of queen cells.
As beekeepers we want our bees to continue to build to a large population capable of bringing in lots of nectar without swarming.
For those newer to beekeeping, there is a thrill to see your bees flying in the spring. Select a day when the bees are flying and it’s not too cold on your arms with your sleeves rolled up (i.e., 16–18°C). Commercial beekeepers will work hives at lower temperatures, as they are quicker and more experienced.
Take time to observe what’s happening at the entrance of the hives, as this gives you an indication of what’s going on in the hive. Bees should be guarding at the entrance on a warm day, checking all the flying bees coming into the hives. A good proportion should have pollen on their back legs. This can indicate you have brood in the hive.
There will also be the odd 20–30 dead bees in front of the hive: bees die every day. What we should be looking for are young shrivelled larvae or small bees without wings—a sign that varroa levels are high in the hive.
Check that the front of the hive is clear of grass so the bees have unobstructed comings and goings and that there’s good air space around the hive. You can then proceed to inspect the hives, but make sure the zip on your hood is completely done up. Bees defending their hives seem to find an unzipped zipper fairly quickly.
Light the smoker and make sure you have a good volume of smoke and that it keeps going. I tend to use dry pine needles I’ve stored over the winter. Puff three or four puffs into the entrance and wait a couple of minutes and repeat. This gives the bees time to adjust to the smoke, as well as disguising any alarm pheromone given off by the guard bees.
Then gently remove the roof and place it within easy reach upside down beside the hive. You are going to put the supers you remove on the upturned roof so that no bees are squashed.
Using your hive tool, lift up the hive mat slightly and waft a little smoke under the cover and over the top of the frames. You now have the hive under control and are ready to inspect the hive.
We have several things to do during our first inspection. First, look under the crown board and on to the frames below for moisture. Some moisture around the edges is OK but the hive mat shouldn’t be completely wet. Frames shouldn’t be damp or mouldy: if they are, you need more top ventilation. Placing a small twig under each corner when you close the hive will reduce the moisture build-up.
Second, we must establish that the hive is disease free. This requires an inspection of all frames starting at the bottom super. Beekeepers without a DECA (those who haven’t sat and passed the AFB recognition test and specified what you will do when finding disease) will have to get an approved beekeeper to do this for them. Waft some smoke over the top bar again and gently prise apart the supers. Place the top one on the upturned roof so you are looking into the bottom super.
Remove the outside frames and then proceed to check all frames for the old sealed cells or old larvae left in the cells. Flick the capping off any isolated sealed cell and check what’s underneath. It could be scale from AFB, dried-up sacbrood or chalkbrood or nearly fully developed bees killed by varroa.
You can have AFB scale in the bottom of a hive but it may not be showing in the larvae in the top super at this point, as the bees might have moved from the diseased area on to disease-free comb. Just one AFB cell condemns the hive to the fire, but make sure it is AFB before following that procedure. If you are not sure, contact another beekeeper or send in three sample larvae to AsureQuality for a laboratory diagnosis.
While the hive is disassembled, check the quality of the hive stand. Wooden pallets tend to rot and although they may look OK now, they might not be able to take the weight of a four- to six-super hive full of honey. Also check the woodware: will it do for another year? The odd crack can be sealed with foam plastic or left as is if you want to collect propolis. Frames with broken lugs or old brood frames you can’t see the sun through should be replaced. Any frames with brood should be moved to the outside of the brood nest so they can be removed after the brood has emerged.
Next, reassemble the hive but reverse the top and bottom supers so the bulk of the bees and brood are on the base, with honey and pollen frames and some empty frames in the middle of the super above. Bees move up in the hive as they develop and by reversing the brood nest, we eliminate one of the conditions that triggers swarming; i.e., congestion.
Next, check the food supply. All hives must maintain a minimum of three frames of honey in the hive at all times. This is the amount a growing colony can use in a week of inclement weather. If your hive is getting close to this amount, consider feeding sugar syrup. You do not want to have a break in brood rearing (when bees run out of food, they will cannibalise the brood for food) during the spring build-up, which results in fewer bees at the honey flow.
If you still have lots of sealed honey over the brood nest and not many frames of open drawn comb for expansion, add another super, putting honey and pollen in the second super with drawn comb in the middle, as mentioned above. Don’t wait for the bees to completely fill the second super with bees before adding another. Once the second super has about six frames covered with bees, add another. The queen will be laying about 1000 eggs a day, which means another frame will be covered with bees every two days.
For those using a queen excluder above the bottom super (i.e., you have a single- super brood nest), move a couple of frames of emerging brood (after shaking off all the bees to make sure the queen is not moved up) into the second super to prevent crowding. The nurse bees will quickly move up and cover the brood frames again so they shouldn’t get chilled.
Usually after a few years’ experience you can recognise those hives that build and produce drones early. These are the ones likely to swarm and can be dealt with early to prevent it. One way is to give them more room, perhaps swapping them with a weaker hive so the field population is moved to the weaker hive. Another way is to transfer emerging brood frames to the weakerhive but before doing this, it’s important to establish why the other hive is weaker. Check for disease.
You might find the odd hive with only a few bees perhaps covering two frames but with no brood (indicating it's queenless) or perhaps spotty brood with raised cappings, indicating the hive has a drone-laying queen or has laying workers. In this situation, usually the drone-laying queen is removed and the whole hive is put on a good strong hive. Small hives are not worth all the work of building up again. It’s far easier to combine weak hives and then make splits/nuc hives further into the season to make up for your losses. And there will be losses: as the saying goes, where there is livestock, there is dead stock. It’s something we have to get used to but we all try to prevent this from happening by wintering strong hives with plenty of stores and a young queen.
Some hives will be small in size, perhaps because they robbed other hive(s) during winter and brought back a load of varroa mites. Generally these have spotty brood and aren’t capable of growing quickly. You can give them a shake of nurse bees off an open brood frame from a strong hive, but first make sure the queen is not on the frame you intend to shake into the weak hive. Marking queens by putting a tiny touch of a marker on the thorax of your queens makes it easier to find them and also gives you an indication of the queen’s age. If there’s no marked spot, it indicates she’s a supersedure queen.
Supersedure queens made late in the season might not have had the full nutrition required or may be poorly mated, so should be marked for replacement. Queens produced during the early autumn while nectar is still coming in are generally OK. Generally we judge whether a queen is any good or not by the brood pattern. If you see more than 15 cells missed per 100 cells, she should be replaced.
Do an AFB check. If you find any, separate off the stored supers that came from that particular hive and destroy them. If you can’t identify the individual supers but know which supers came from that apiary, put an apiary quarantine on that particular apiary for 18 months using those supers only in that apiary.
Feed hives if necessary: hives should have a minimum of three frames of honey in them at all times.
Spray or weed whack the vegetation surrounding hives.
Check stored supers for wax moth. Cull old frames from the brood nest or work them gradually to the outside if they contain brood so they are replaced within a month.
Get the wax dipper going to dip new and reconditioned supers so that replacement hive parts are ready for another season.
Put in early mite treatments or check mite levels using a cappings fork, sugar shake or a strip in a jar for 30 minutes or natural fall over a week with mesh bottom boards. Check your varroa manual to calculate mite numbers and treatment options. Don’t forget to rotate treatments to prevent resistance developing.