Chris has been a beekeeper for almost a decade. He enjoys learning conversing about beekeeping and learning about bees from others.
A Beekeeper's Spring Tasks
Spring is the time that most people associate with honey bees. It is the time of year that keepers pick up 3-pound packages of bees and nucs to start beekeeping or expand an existing apiary. Fruit farmers may be looking for last-minute hives to help pollinate their crop. Existing reports about winter hive losses are discussed, and new reports are released,
Phew, that is a lot of information already! But what hands-on tasks does a beekeeper perform in the spring? In the spring a beekeeper will:
- Feed honey bees honey or sugar water
- Feed bees pollen and/or pollen patties
- Place new hives
- Replace queens
- Begin pest control
- Check laying patterns
- Verify honey supers are ready
- Monitor production
Feeding Honey Bees Sugar Water or Honey
The winter is at an end, and it is time to help the honey bees grow their numbers so they can produce more honey. To keep the activity level high, many beekeepers will give sugar water to their honey bees. Fewer will give them honey from the surplus of the previous year.
The mixture for sugar water is generally 2 parts sugar to 1 part water. Some beekeepers will include an additive with this. Additives are meant to stimulate brood production, keep water from growing mold and algae, and better support the beehive.
Some beekeepers will do a mass feed where they leave a container out for all the bees in the area. This works for some beekeepers, but raccoons and wild animals will also get into this and may make a mess. Protection may be necessary to prevent the waste of the product.
Other beekeepers will do an entrance feeder that sits in the entrance of the beehive and restricts access to the honey or sugar water. There is the possibility that a stronger hive will rob the weaker hives and slow the growth of a hive. And there are several forms on hive feeders. Some take the place of a frame inside of the beehive; others use an empty box that sits on top of the hive.
Feeding Honey Bees Pollen
Pollen is the only protein young bees will have to eat. Honey bees collect pollen while flying around looking for nectar. They store the pollen on their back legs in small grooves called pollen sacks. When bees go back to the hive, they pass it along to be stored. The pollen is mixed with enzymes to create something called bee bread. This is what the young bees will be fed to help them grow and strengthen the hive.
At the beginning of spring, beehives are given open access to pollen and/or pollen patties to help them bolster their growth and development and keep improving the number of honey bees in the hive. Larger operations may have an apiary feeder where all the bees in the area can come and get pollen. I prefer to use pollen patties currently, but I generally have no more than 10 hives at a time. I would recommend pollen patties for most beekeepers.
Placing New Hives
Spring is the most common time to place new beehives. New hives in early spring are usually three-pound packages. A three-pound package comes with about 10,000 bees or three pounds and a mated queen. It will take about six weeks for them to build the honeycomb in the main box and the second box.
These lower two boxes are called bee boxes around here. The other boxes will be honey boxes. Bee boxes are usually deep supers and honey boxes are usually medium supers. This is just the height of the box, although there is also a shallow super.
Later in the spring, there will be nucs to buy, hives to split, extractions, and swarms to catch. A nuc is somewhat like a package of bees but there are usually four or five frames that are already filled out with brood, honey, and pollen to give the hive a firm foundation.
Splitting a Hive
Splitting a hive means that a hive is particularly strong and can afford to be split, which is essentially taking about 3 pounds of bees and the existing queen from the hive and starting another hive with them. Taking some of the resources from the original hive to give the new hive a firm foundation of development.
When a hive swarms, it means that the existing queen leaves with generally about half the bees in the hive. This is the reason that you take the existing queen from the hive and put her in the new one.
Extractions are when feral bees move into a place that is a nuisance for someone and begin building their hive there. I have taken hives out of someone's wall, an attic, a porch ceiling, etc. This is when a hive swarms and the swarm moves in someplace not desired. One main issue with this is that people usually don't like cutting a hole in the wall. A beekeeper needs to capture the queen in this case for the hive to move out. This can be an extremely tough situation.
A swarm is when the beehive is too crowded, the queen will leave, and about half the honey bees will follow her. When the queen gets tired of flying she will land and the bees will ball around her. This is protecting her and giving her a chance to rest until the honey bees have found a location for a beehive.
During this swarming, it is possible to catch the swarm and put them into a beehive. They don't always move in though. I have had to catch a swarm twice before it would take to the beehive.
Replacing the Queen
When a queen is laying eggs erratically or not with a central pattern, laying is slowing down, the honey bees are too aggressive, or the hive is just not performing; it is time to replace the queen.
The queen controls the beehive almost completely with pheromones. This will determine if the honey bees are focused and producing and building like they are desired to be doing, if they are more aggressive or more laid back, i.e., how much they sting, and the overall population of the beehive.
The process is as easy as removing and killing the existing queen honey bee and letting the beehive make a new queen or purchase a mated queen and save the hive about 21 days of development and time. If purchasing a queen, she will be mated and ready to start laying eggs as soon as the other bees free her from her cage. If letting the beehive create their own queen then it will be at least 21 days before a new queen will be ready to lay eggs.
Beginning Pest Control
The two main pests for honey bees would be the Varroa mite and the small hive beetle. These two can destroy a hive pretty quickly once they get a foot in the door. The Varroa mite will attach themselves to bees as well as get sealed in with the honey bee larva. They will destroy the population and cause the beehive to collapse.
Varroa can reproduce every 10 days. They first target drone honey bees being capped, the cells are larger, and there are three more days for a drone to leave its cell than a worker bee. In 12 weeks of summer, the Varroa can have a population explosion of up to 12 times. Then when the drone bees are kicked out, and the drones aren't being produced anymore, there is a sudden target of worker bee larva attack, and a population crisis occurs, and the beehive collapses.
European honey bees are almost defenseless against the Varroa mite, and the Russian honey bee has a higher rate of resistance. But the Russian honey bee is also much more aggressive in general than the European honey bee. I would almost never recommend a Russian honey bee hive to a beginner. Most beekeepers use oxalic acid to kill Varroa mites with a treatment schedule. The vaporized oxalic acid does not harm the honey bee, but it will kill the varroa mites.
Small Hive Beetles
Small hive beetles can trick guard honey bees into letting them pass with the use of their antennae and will pretend to be another honey bee. The small hive beetle will lay eggs in the corners of the hive, and then the larva will hatch and eat honey, pollen, and bee brood and let their excrement contaminate honey as well.
The larva will then leave the hive and burrow into the ground beneath the hive to pupate and then will return to the hive, which is located by the use of a yeast by the beetle. There are small traps that can be used to trap small hive beetles, but the best defense is having a strong honey bee colony.
Checking Laying Patterns
It is necessary to check the egg pattern in the honey bee hive to verify the queen is still alive and laying well. If the queen is dead, the beekeeper will not find any eggs, or if there are multiple eggs per cell, then a worker bee is laying eggs, and this is not a good situation either.
If the queen is missing, the options are to purchase a mated queen or let the hive create a new queen. Considerations for which to do would be time involved; currently, a new honey bee queen is around $30 to $35, how the last queen performed, aggression level acceptable, etc.
If a worker honey bee is laying, the solution is rather easy. A beekeeper will still need to make the decision about purchasing a queen or letting the hive create one with the same considerations as above. But to remove the worker bee that is laying eggs, it is as easy as dumping the bees out about 10–15 yards from the beehive.
The worker bee that is laying the eggs will not have mapped the area and will not know how to return to the beehive. You will lose some other bees as well, but the bees that are currently working will not have an issue returning to the beehive.
A beekeeper wants to verify that all the honey supers, frames, and foundations are clean and ready to be placed on the beehive for honey collection. Paying attention to nectar flows for when to place them, the beehive does need to be close to full for the honey bees to place honey in the honey super.
Some beekeepers will use a queen excluder to keep the queen from entering the super where they want surplus honey to be placed. But if the production of brood, pollen collection, and honey has been going smoothly, then it shouldn't be much of an issue because once the bees start, the queen generally won't enter this level to lay eggs.
I do not use queen excluders and have only had a queen once lay eggs in a honey super. Generally, the queen won't walk over a frame that is full; she is looking for empty cells to lay eggs in. But it is good to have these boxes all ready to go for when the nectar starts to run.
There are multiple ways that beekeepers monitor production. Some beekeepers will open the hive to look, others will go by weight, and some beekeepers wait until the end of the season to collect.
One of the easier methods is to have two hive tops with a medium or honey super sitting on one that is upside down. As a super that is full of honey is taken from the beehive and the bees removed, take an empty frame from the super that is sitting on the upside-down top and put the honey-filled frame in. Place the other beehive top on the super sitting on the upside-down top to keep bees away from it. Continue this until the honey-filled frames are removed, adding another honey super on as needed.
If you would like to read about what beekeepers do in other seasons as well, I hope you will read "What Do Beekeepers Do in Winter." If you have any questions, please post as a comment, and I will answer as soon as possible.
© 2018 Chris Andrews
Chris Andrews (author) from Ohio on August 29, 2018:
Glad you read the article and enjoyed it.
Joyce Dykstra on August 29, 2018: