The beekeeping year starts in the early spring, about March, when the temperatures start to rise and the daylight hours noticeably begin to draw out. The colony, having survived the winter by clustering together in the shelter of the hive, keeping warm and protecting the queen, begins to stir. With comparatively low numbers and with little or no brood having been produced over the winter to provide replacements, the colony is ready to get busy foraging and bringing much needed pollen and nectar into the hive. The early flowering plants including willow, snowdrop, and crocus provide the opportunity and the forager bees don't miss the chance whenever the weather permits. The appearance of fresh pollen and nectar in the hive triggers the queen to increase egg laying which has the effect of increasing the overall colony activity from simply keeping warm to foraging, nursing the brood, feeding, storing and other duties including scouting. Scout bees will start searching around on good days as soon as the spring flowers arrive, prepare and set swarm traps in mid April, the scouts will locate them and will increase the chances of you catching a swarm later.
Download this handy round-up of monthly tasks Petrus Monthly Round
Image copyright Linda's Bees ©
Easy to use rapid feeder, can be topped up without releasing bees.
Active bees in March means hungry bees, making it important for the beekeeper to keep an eye on the weather and the amount of available stores inside the hive, especially while the weather is still unpredictable. If they can't get out to forage due to bad weather, the internal stores deplete very quickly and starvation can occur within a surprisingly short time. Supplementing their stores at this time is good practice, putting on a rapid / contact feeder with heavy syrup will give the colony a boost if they need it, if they don't they will simply leave it alone (in the image the sprigs in the syrup are thyme, part of a varroa control plan, thyme, savory and spearmint essences have acaricidal properties and are proven to cause mite mortality). If they need feeding before mid March you should use candy as in the colder weather (lower than 8℃) the bees can't reduce the moisture content of the syrup down enough to store well, and it will start to ferment. Pollen substitute can be added alongside candy and fondant at this point to supplement any forage that the bees can't get to, make sure it is in date!
Feeders come in various forms to suit use on hives and nucs, and can provide an instant source of feed for the bees when hive stores are depleted and forage is in short supply or inaccessible. The majority of feeders are designed to go on top of the hive or nuc, but others are designed to feed at the entrance, or from inside the hive or nuc (frame feeder). Contact feeders are generally a container which can be sealed once filled, and has a small fine mesh aperture underneath which allows the bees to suck the feed down. Contact feeders allow the bees to crawl in and directly access the feed, and can conveniently be topped up without opening the hive and releasing the bees.
Hefting hives, by gently lifting the hive one side at a time at the base with a spring balance and checking the weight, will give an indication of how much honey reserves they have left. The checked weight is relative to the weight of your hive at the end of the autumn when you prepared the hives for winter. Good record keeping and experience is required for this, knowing what stores were in the hive before winter is important, ideally they should have 30 -40 lbs of honey stored in the hive before winter. Be prepared to supplement their feed with fondant, candy, or sugar bags if and when required. Starvation occurs very quickly after stores run out, especially in winter.
From January to March it is still too cold to open up the hive and carry out inspections, and realistically it is not necessary. Early spring activity increases very quickly and much can be determined from observing the activity at the front of the hives. If in good weather the bees are flying and bringing in pollen then all is probably well and indicates a laying queen. On a sunny day it is possible to have a a quick look under the crown board to check if the bees have moved up into the top of the hive having used up the lower stores, and also to check or top up any candy / fondant reserves. Be on the look out for build up of dead bees blocking the entrance, a normal winter occurrence, clear it if necessary. Mid to late March consider putting in some pollen supplement and a contact feeder with syrup if the weather is unsettled.
When the weather has settled and April has arrived along with more spring flowers and early fruits, the front of the hive should be busy with pollen laden bees returning. There will be young bees in the hive now boosting numbers and if there are no supers on the hives now is the time to put them on with a queen excluder after removing any candy or syrup feeds from the top of the brood box. A warm sunny day now is an opportunity to open the hive up and check for a laying queen, sufficient stores, and to carry out a general colony health check.
Early spring is a good time to check your equipment, suit, gloves, boots, hive tools, queen traps and marking medium, take stock of spares, affect any repairs to hive components and tidy up around the apiary. De-coke the smoker and make sure your tool box has the necessary equipment and consumables ready for the season.