October 10, 2016

Feeding Bees in Late Winter / Early Spring

early spring honeybee feeding As a beekeeper it is all to easy to relax once the first spring flowers begin to show and your bees are beginning to venture out and assume that your bees can fend for themselves again. This is the time when bees may need the most help. As the bees become more active they will need more food, which they may not readily be able to replenish yet from external resources. In addition a few good spring days maybe followed by days of cold and wet weather at this time of year. In fact early spring / late winter is the time when honeybee colonies can be most at risk.

Having got your colonies through winter  it important for beekeepers to correctly manage hives that have survived as this is the time of the year when bees start running out of stored honey if they haven’t already, especially if they are starting to become active for some parts of the day. To help them not to die from starvation, it’s important that you feed your bees. If you find dead bees with their heads stuck in cells, this is a sign that they have starved to death.

It is too early to feed your bees sugar-water as they will not be able to get rid of the excess moisture. A quick method of getting food to them is to pure some sugar into a bowl and add just enough water so that you can form the sugar into a firm but moist ball. This ball can then easily be added to the hive either over the hole on the crown board or onto the frames above where there are most active bees present.

Alternatively you can tear a paper bag of sugar add a small amount of water enough to moisten but not soak the bag and place this into the hive.

Pollen patties are a good source of protein for the bees, which is essential for any new brood that maybe developing. These can be purchased or made from a dry powder mix.

More about Colony Management

How to Avoid Honey Crystallisation

Although honey crystallisation is a natural process (see also … Why does honey crystallise? ) as  a beekeeper you do not want to help initiate this process before you have had the chance to bottle and sell your honey. Therefore it is important to know how to store your extracted combs and honey.

Honey should be stored at room temperature in airtight containers and the optimum temperature for storing honey is 21 to 27 ºC (70-80 ºF). Temperatures between 11 to 18 ºC (52- 64ºF), are ideal for crystallisation and therefore should be avoided. Refrigerators also aid the process of crystallisation and should again be avoided.

Filter your honey if you want to avoid crystallisation through a 80 micro filter or pass it through several sheets of fine nylon or mesh cloth. This will remove small particles such as pollen, propolis, beeswax, sugar crystals and air bubbles all of which will aid crystallisation by providing a seed or nuclei for the process to start and develop.

Honey can be heated in hot air up to to 40ºC or 104 ºF which will melt any sugar crystals and prevent crystallisation. You must check carefully with an accurate candy thermometer that the temperature does not exceed 40ºC  otherwise it will be overheated. Overheated honey loses a lot of its natural goodness and flavour and is no longer a premium product.

Commercial honey suppliers heat honey to over 63ºC (145 ºF) for as long as thirty minutes or even higher for shorter periods, then cool it quickly. This ensures that the honey will not crystallise and keeps it runny for longer in response to the mass market demand for squeezable honey.  This product is far from the natural nutrient rich product that the bees worked so hard to produce, as the heat treatment removes and kills most of the goodness such as anti-oxidants, enzymes and vitamins from the original product.

As beekeepers we should be aiming to provide our family, friends and customers with a natural healthy product and therefore care should be taken, with regard to temperature.

Finally we would recommend that you put your supers full of empty combs  back into the hives for the bees to clean after you have extracted the honey. Not only will you be giving the bees back something but it will also reduce the likelihood of any residue honey crystallising over winter and getting into next years honey and causing it to crystallise too quickly.

More Honey Facts

More About Honey Extraction and Care

What to Look for When Inspecting a Hive

When inspecting a hive there are several things that you should be looking out for and these are summarised below.

Evidence that the hive is ‘queen right’

Queen right is the term given to describe a colony of honey bees where the queen bee is present and laying eggs. When inspecting your hive  look out for the queen, but if you cannot find her don’t worry. It is not always easy to find the queen especially if the hive has many boxes and large numbers of bees. Ideally you should have your queen marked, which will help you to find her and also to confirm that the queen you have found is your original one and not a replacement.

If you cannot find your queen, look for eggs. If you find eggs you know that your queen was at least in your hive a couple of days ago. If you cannot find your queen and you see no eggs, then you have a problem as either the queen is dead or she has stopped laying or is defective in some way and cannot lay.

As you remove a frame for inspection, be sure to hold it over the hive, in case the queen is on it and falls off. If you are holding it over the hive then she will fall back into the hive. If the queen was to fall onto the ground outside the hive there is no guarantee she will be able to find her way back in.
Presence of all stages of brood
It is important for the colonies survival that there is plenty of brood at all stages of development and in particular plenty capped or sealed brood. You should also as the season progresses see a marked increase in the bee population, which is essential if the bees are to gather enough to produce the honey that you and they need.
Check for any abnormalities
This gets easier with experience and after a while an experienced beekeeper can tell at a quick glance whether there are any real problems or not. You should be looking in particular for any sign of disease (e.g malformed larvae) or pests, such as varroa or wax moth (refer to our pests and diseases section).
Check for sufficient honey and pollen stores
The amount of honey stores will depend upon the time of year, but if you feel that there is insufficient stores then you should feed your bees. The bees will usually store pollen near the brood areas as this is where it is most needed.
Check that there is enough space
Again this depends upon the time of year. In spring and early summer it is important that the queen has plenty space to lay if not you increase the likelihood of losing most of your bees and honey as the colony will swarm. Always add supers in plenty time for the main nectar flow if you are to maximise your honey crop.
You should also  ideally keep a written record of what you have seen in each hive as it is not as easy to remember from inspection to inspection as you might imagine.

Removing the Queen Cage from a Package of Bees and First Inspections.

Having installed a package of bees for the first time it can often be hard for new beekeepers to resist the temptation of checking what is happening inside their new hive. We are often asked when you should inspect your hive after installing your packaged bees? You must wait at least 5  days any sooner and the bees may not have had a chance to accept the queen and she may be rejected or killed.
After 5 to 7 days, you can open the hive and check to see if the queen has been released from her cage. There will likely be bees on the queen cage and quite possibly they will have started to build comb on the bottom of it. Be very gentle when examining the cage and attached comb as the queen may be on the outside of the cage or on the attached comb. If she is on it gently brush her onto a frame and then shake the remaining bees off, before discarding the queen cage and any attached comb. If the queen has not been released, then you will need to carefully release her. Do not leave the queen cage in the hive longer than is necessary as the bees will cover it with comb and make it difficult to remove without damage to the frame and foundation it is attached to.
If the queen has been released and she is not on the outside of the cage, look for her. By this time, 1 or 2 frames should be drawn and you should be able to see some eggs in the cells. If you don’t find the queen but you do see eggs in the cells, don’t panic, your queen is alive and doing her job. If, however, you cannot find the queen or any eggs in the cells or if you find that your queen is dead within her cage, then you will need to place an order for a new queen, as soon as possible. If the queen is present close the hive and wait another week before inspecting again. Ensuring once again then that the queen is present and laying.
You should continue feeding the colony sugar syrup until you are certain there is a strong nectar flow and the bees are beginning to build up their honey stores.
Note: On the third week you may be concerned to notice a significant reduction in the population of the adult bees. Don’t worry, this is natural as the average life span of a worker bee during the spring and summer months is only 3 weeks and so the newly laid brood has not had a chance to replenish the colony. But as long as your queen is laying properly and you are seeing the cells being filled with brood, you have nothing to be concerned about. You should see the population increasing again within the next 2-3 weeks as the new bees begin to emerge.

Harvesting Propolis

Propolis is becoming increasingly valued by those seeking more natural products and remedies and therefore the collection of propolis has become a profitable exercise for beekeepers. Propolis is harvested in Autumn using special propolis traps, it is at this time that the bees will be anxious to seal any holes up to reduce potential winter drafts. Propolis can of course just be scraped from the hive parts but it is more likely to have pieces of wood and other impurities in it. These can be filtered out, but this can be time-consuming.

Propolis traps are usually simple metal or plastic screens, similar to queen excluders. However mosquito or fly mesh can be stretched across a frame as an alternative propolis trap. A trick that is often used is to add the traps at the top of the hive and prop the roof open slightly, thereby allowing light to enter. This will then prompt the bees to cover the mesh with propolis to block out the light.

Once the traps are full they can then be  removed and frozen, which will make the propolis become hard and brittle and therefore easier to remove. Take out any obvious debris and then store in the refrigerator in a clean air tight container.

Below are some propolis based products you might like to check out

More about Propolis

Colony Collapse Disorder – Parasitic Fly Could be to Blame

A parasitic fly that hijacks the bees’ bodies and causes them to abandon their hives has been put forward as a possible explanation for Colony Collapse Disorder. Northern California scientists say the fly deposits its eggs into the bee’s abdomen, causing the infected bee to exhibit trance like behaviour, walking around in circles and then leaving the hive at night to die. This is what happens with Colony Collapse Disorder, in which all the adult honey bees in a colony suddenly disappear over night.

This research is another step in the right direction in finding the cause of Colony Collapse Disorder which is having a serious effect on the US bee industry. Research so far points to a combination of factors including pesticide contamination, a lack of the right food sources, mites, fungi, viruses and parasites.

Interaction among the parasite and multiple pathogens could be one possible factor in colony collapse, according to the latest study by researchers at San Francisco State University. It says the phorid fly, or apocephalus borealis, was found in bees from three-quarters of the 31 hives surveyed in the San Francisco Bay area. The combination of a parasite, pathogens and other stressors could cause die-off, lead investigator John Hafernik said. The parasitic fly serves as a reservoir that harbours pathogens ; honey bees from parasite-infected hives tested positive for deformed wing virus and other pathogens, the study found.

“We don’t fully understand the web of interactions,” Hafernik said. “The parasite could be another stressor, enough to push the bee over tipping point. Or it could play a primary role in causing the disease.”

A Closer Look at Honeycomb

Honey bee nests are made from honeycomb, which is made up of a mass of hexagonal wax cells built by the bees from wax . Each of these cells are used to contain honey and pollen stores and all stages of the young or brood from egg to pupa.

These hexagonal cells are built up on both sides of a central vertical plain known as the septum . The base of the cell on one side of the septum serves as the base for the cell on the other side, thereby maximizing the space created using the least amount of wax.

The hexagonal  honeycomb cells are not all the same size but come in two distinct sizes. Cells used to rear worker bees measure  approximately 5 to an inch, while those for the larger drone bees measure approximately 4 to an inch. Both types of  cells can also be used to store honey.

The honeycomb cell walls are very thin, only about .006 of an inch in thickness, with a slightly thicker top or coping. Propolis is used to strengthen and varnish the cells.

It is believed that the reason that honeycomb is composed of hexagons, rather than any other shape is that the hexagonal shapes cover a surface and create cells in a way that is composed of the least surface area. That is, the bees have typically used the most efficient way to maximise the storage space in an area while using the least amount of wax.

In a typical hive or nest in the wild the honeycomb structures or frames will hang vertically. The bees will build or draw the hexagonal cells out enough to hold the developing young bees or honey. If the cells are used for brood there will be enough space left for two bees to work back to back between the vertical honeycomb and if the cells contain honey to maximise the storage space there will be only enough space left for one bee to work between the honeycombs. The cells are also cleverly angled at about 13 degrees, which is just enough to prevent honey or nectar dripping out.

More about Honey Bee Colonies

The equipment from any colonies lost over winter should be taken apart and cleaned thoroughly, especially if you suspect death was due to disease. Please refer to our disease and pest section for how to spot and deal with specific diseases and pests.

April in the Western Hemisphere is when hives should be thoroughly inspected and cleaned up where necessary. It can still be cold, so do be careful not to chill the brood, which will kill it. When the tempera­ture is above 50°F (10°C) and there is little or no wind, you can examine brood, but do not expose it to the atmosphere for more than a minute or two. When the temperature is 65°F (18°C) and there is little or no wind, you can then safely remove and thoroughly examine the frames.

In addition to checking for food stores, you should look for brood as this will indicate whether or not the queen is present and productive. You should at this time also clean out the hive entrance and scrape clean the bottom board or floor.

Remove excess propolis and comb from the frames and top board. All old or damaged comb should be replaced with new foundation. Old comb should be replaced on a regular basis to prevent the build-up of disease organisms. Cell size is also reduced over time due to the build-up of parts of cocoons left in the cells by pupating bees, this will result in smaller adult bees. If, when held up to the sun, no light passes through a comb, it should be replaced with new foundation or new drawn comb. As a rule we suggest replacing at least 25% of all comb per year. If you use frame spacers, using different colours to represent the year the comb was first used is helpful.

It is often a good idea to reverse the hive bodies, as a queen located in the upper hive body may be slow to expand her brood nest if adjacent frames are filled with honey and she is often reluctant to move downward. However this should not be done too early, in case it results in a split brood nest. Under these circumstances if there is a sudden drop in temperature it may make it difficult for the bees to maintain the correct brood cell temperature.

This is also now the time that you should be thinking about varroa mite control. As varroa is now so widespread it is safe to assume that varroa mite monitoring and control is necessary even if you cannot see any (for more details see our Varroa Control section).

Typically, colonies are treated for varroa mites in the late summer or early fall, after the honey harvest. However any colonies not treated in Autumn may need to be treated in Spring.  All chemical control treatments must be completed well before the honey flow begins and any supers are put in place.

If you decide as we would recommend to use Integrated Pest Management (IPM) techniques as a means of varroa mite management, many of these techniques will need to be put in place early on in the season.

More about Bee Colony Management

Inspecting or Going Through Your Bees

As long as you have a well lit smoker and suitable protective clothing you should have no problems inspecting or ‘going through ’ your bees.

After correctly lighting your smoker and putting on at least a veil, approach your hive from the rear, so as to avoid walking through the bees flight path as they exit and enter. You should ideally stand at the sides of the hive, switching sides as necessary as you work through the frames. Again avoid standing in front of the entrance at any time. If several colonies or rows of colonies face the same direction, examine the front hive or row first so that you later work behind the disturbed colonies. This way you will greatly reduce your chances of getting stung.

When beginning to inspect a colony, blow two or three puffs of smoke across the entrance and under the lid to discourage the guard bees. Then use a puff or two every time a piece of equipment is removed or replaced. This keeps the bees under control and out of the way so few bees are killed as you work.

Once the cover or a hive body is lifted up, remove it gently making sure it does not fall back down in place. Always try to avoid bumping or jarring the hive during inspection, this way, you crush fewer bees and alarm the colony less. If you do accidently jar the hive and the bees become very agitated it is a good idea to calmly put everything back together and leave the inspection to later on or to the next day.

If possible inspect the bees when a lot of the older workers will be out collecting nectar or pollen, this is most likely on clear, warm days between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. . Bees are easiest to handle during a nectar flow as they will be happier and less defensive. Again always handle the bees slowly and with care, unnecessary heavy handed movements leads to more confusion and potential stings.

After removing the outer telescoping cover or roof, place it underside-up on the ground close beside you near to the hive. This will then serve as a place to put the upper hive bodies when you are examin­ing the lower brood chamber of the hive. Bees on the crown board or inner cover when it is removed can be knocked off at the hive entrance or left if there is only a few. Check carefully before you do this that the queen is not on the board. If you have a queen excluder on lower down this is unlikely but not completely unknown. Then set the inner cover out of the way or use it as a temporary cover for boxes that have been removed as you are examining the lower boxes.

Bees like to seal the inner cover to the hive boxes and the frames together with propolis at every point of contact. Gently use the straight end of your hive tool to pry them apart, starting with the second frame in on the side you are working from. Pull the frame slowly out of the hive and look for the queen while holding the frame over the top of the hive. If she is not on the frame, set it on end against the opposite side of the hive away from your feet near to, but not blocking, the entrance.

If the queen is on the frame, carefully replace the frame and remove the frame next to it making sure that you know where the queen is to avoid crushing her. Once you have removed one of the frames it is easier to remove the remaining frames as the propolis seal has been broken. Move them towards the space, lifting them to examine and then replacing them in order. Keeping the combs in their original positions is desirable as it is less disruptive to the bees. However as you become more experienced you may wish to change the order to improve to try for example to speed up the drawing out of the frame foundation.

To see eggs and young larvae, you should tilt the frame slightly so the light comes over your shoulder and falls into the cells of the comb. To look at the opposite side of the comb or frame, raise or lower one end until the top bar is vertical, pivot the frame 180° and bring the top bar back to a horizontal position. Repeat the process before replacing the comb in the hive. When you finish examining the combs of a hive body, replace the first frame that was removed into its original position.

When reassembling the hive, smoke the bees so that they move down and pause slightly before replacing hive bodies or covers, in doing so most of the bees will move out of the way.

While the incidences of stings can be greatly reduced with good colony manipulation techniques some stings are unavoidable. Most will occur on your hands as a result of squashing a bee as you lift out a frame. If you are stung, scrape the stinger away with your fingernail, hive tool or other sharp object, don’t try and pull it out as this will only leave the poison sac behind. Lightly smoke the area of the sting, as this will reduce the alarm odours left by the sting which may cause others to sting in response. Always launder gloves and suits that have received multiple stings as the alarm odours can remain in these for long periods of time.

More about Bee Hive Inspection

Correct late winter / spring management of your bees is vital to the survival and productivity of the bee colony for the rest of the year. This time in the beekeeping calendar is primarily concerned with ensuring that the bees have sufficient food stores, but also with disease and mite control.

In autumn, bees will normally cluster between the combs near the bottom of the stored honey. During winter, they will gradually eat these stores while moving upward between the combs, once they reach the top they will have run out of food and can potentially starve.

Having adequate supplies of honey and pollen located above and to the sides of the cluster is very important, since once first brood rearing begins, often early in January, the cluster will be unable to leave the brood area to find food reserves.

In February and early March, colonies should be assessed and opened preferably on a sunny day and only if the temperature is above 40°F (4°C). Midday is the best time to check the cluster so that the bees have adequate time to recluster if necessary.  When locating the cluster be very careful not to disturb it.

Even if food is available bees will not go down into lower boxes or move vertically in cold weather to get to food stores. So if the cluster is near the top of the hive, emergency feeding may be necessary. Check closely to see how much honey is available to the bees on either side of and above the cluster.

Colonies found to be short of stores before late March-Early April in more northerly areas should not be fed sugar syrup as the bees will have problems handling the excess water, unless the weather is unseasonably dry and warm. Instead sugar candy or dry granulated sugar (a quick method is to rip a bag of sugar open, dampen slightly and add it to the top of the frames or inner cover) should be fed to the bees.

Once the daytime temperatures increase enough to allow the winter cluster to start to disperse and occasional flights to take place, heavy sugar syrup can be fed to ensure the colony does not starve before external resources become available.

From mid-March through April, monitoring colony stores and its relation to brood expansion is important. The fresh pollen becoming available at this time, serves as a strong stimulus to brood rearing and as a result the size of the brood may increase faster than stores can be replenished. This is when colonies are particularly vulnerable to starvation.

If late March into April is warm and dry and good flight weather then feeding may not be necessary. However, if the weather inhibits flight activity, strong colonies with large brood areas can quickly run out of food. As a rule of thumb if at any time in Spring and Summer a colony has less than 20 pounds of food stores, equivalent to three full-depth frames of honey it should be fed. At this time sugar syrup, one part sugar to water should be given.

Pollen is also essential for brood raising, so check to see that sufficient supplies are stored in the brood area. You can increase or supple­ment pollen supplies with pollen substitutes avail­able from most beekeeping suppliers. In most instances this should not be necessary.

N.B. Once you start feeding you must continue until you are certain that plenty of natural resources are available, otherwise the bees may starve. In addition whilst feeding in spring will ensure that your bees do not starve, it may also lead to a rapid increase in brood rearing and therefore swarm management may be needed as early as mid to late spring.

More on Bee Colony Management