The keepers were nestled all snug in their beds;
While visions of honey supers danced in their heads;
And mamma in her 'jacket, and I in my suit,
Had just settled our bees for a long winter's snooze,
When a day in mid-March there arose such a clatter,
I sprang to my hives to see what was the matter.
Away to the boxes I ran like a mother,
Tore open the quilt boxes and threw up the cover.
The waves of little wings hummed as loud as a bell
As I pulled out a frame and stared in each cell
When what to my wondering eyes had i seen?
But well-packed brood and an egg laying queen.
I kept on inspecting, what could it hurt?
And that's when i yelled: "holy crap... ------------>
You did it. Maybe this year was just like years past; or maybe this year was the exact opposite. For whatever reason, your management, climate, or just dumb luck has granted you a gift: an overwintered hive. The wise elder would tell you to sit an reflect on your actions, your skills, your calming presence over your colony... BUT NO TIME!!! THINGS ARE HAPPENING!
Many associations, academic centers, and us "bee biz folks" offer "Spring Management" courses, and with good reason. The tactics, goals, and timelines of your first year change drastically when you have a populated colony full of waxed frames to leap right into the spring nectar flow. Beekeepers starting out with nucs and packages often miss some or all of our spring nectar flow, which typically begins with the cherry-blossom bloom in the NOVA area.
While there are many new challenges and tasks for the beekeeper in their second year, there are many things that remain unchanged:
Bees need space. Boxes should be supered once they reach 80%
Bees need food. Do not let the fools of March make your cry in April. February/ March are tough years for honeybees in Virginia. The smaller the cluster, the harder the swings of temps can affect them.
Bees have pests. Colonies need to be tested and treated for mites early. Mite levels are usually low as we come out of winter since the natural brood break drops mite populations, but don't be fooled. A queen's near-exponential laying in spring will also ramp up mite numbers. If you had a bad small hive beetle problem going into winter, you'll have a small hive beetle problem in the spring. Take time to get a handle on these issues fast.
But the beehive is a paradox, and what was and is very comfortable soon becomes saturated with the bitter sent of change and unfamiliarity. There are 3 major aspects of overwintered colony management that are important to understand:
Swarming is natural, and it is going to happen.
This is, by far, the biggest learning curve for the overwintered colony. When a colony is new, the chances of swarming has less to do with natural asexual reproduction and more about responding to negative stimulus, frequently resulting in absconding, not a true swarm. This could easily be its own class, blog, or post. So I will try and be brief (said every beekeeper, ever).
Swarming is natural, and it is going to happen. Again for those of you in the back of the room: YOUR OVERWINTERED COLONY IS GOING TO SWARM. The question will be: Can you artificially swarm them into another hive, or will you be chasing them up into the trees? A colony that is preparing to swarm is a colony in good health. The rearing of drones and queen cells is an investment in the colony's genetic future. It can take away from the colony's selfish survival instincts that it held so dearly during its first year.
Noticing Swarm Preparation. Queen cells are the caboose of the swarm train. The colony does other things to prepare for swarming. A fine-tuned eye can pick up other changes in the colony that may hit at what is to come:
Increasing drone brood- Admittedly this is tough in spring, as drone rearing is a naturally occurring event. The colony raises more drones during swarm preparations as an investment in replication. Sharing drone genetics is synonymous with replicating the colony.
The queen slims down, wings elongate- Another subtle change, but as the queen prepares herself for flight, she needs to be a bit more aerodynamic if she hopes to make it to the swarm cluster and then, eventually, the new hive.
The CHARGING of swarm cells with eggs. Not just cups, but actual cells. The queen places an egg in the swarm cup as a response to the impulse to swarm. Once this has started, the clock starts.
Reacting to swarm cells- Cutting out of swarm cells is not a definitive way to stop swarming
from happening. Removing the swarm cells and cups from a colony who is ready to swarm is like removing the plate of steak from the lion who is ready to eat. Eventually that lion will eat. When the time is right (weather is good, drones are out flying), it is time to split. There are many good videos on splitting techniques available online.
The important thing to denote here is that splitting a colony that has charged, well formed queen cells is RESPONDING to the bee's natural impulse to swarm. If you remove the queen prematurely, You might CREATE a new impulse: Emergency queen cells. This is an important distinction because emergency cells have been said to be genetically inferior to queens made via the swarm impulse. It also means your split that is lurking quietly in a new hive or nucbox has not satisfied the craving to swarm, and may swarm later on. certainly colonies can swarm multiple times, but it important to react to the impulse, not create one.
To "artificially swarm" the hive, remove the current queen and frames of brood and nurse bees to a new box. This makes the parent colony feel as if the swarm has been completed, and they are free to stay put.
Lastly, note your timing. It takes about 9 days for a queen to lay her replacement in a swarm cell and cap the cell. Once the cell is capped, the need to stay and feed the queen larva is over. There is nothing anchoring your swarm and they could leave at any moment. There is a sensitive development period when the queen cells should be left alone from day 10-13. Queens typically hatch on day 14.
Because of this timeline, colonies in a "pre-swarm" condition should be inspected very carefully every 7 days.
Utilize techniques to ensure good space inside of the hive. This can include reversing boxes if the majority of the colony is in the upper brood box and your lower box looks like the set of an old western film. You can also add supers, checkerboard empty frames, or remove full frames of food in exchange for empty frames. One note on checkerboarding: I tend to not do this in the brood chambers. It is important not to break up brood frames.
Honey crops and supers
Second year hives mean honey surpluses, harvests, and lots of equipment! A strong colony can fill a medium super in no time. Much like the advice given to first year beekeepers, it is always important to have the equipment for the next "step in the stack" waiting in the wings. With honey supers, it is important to be more than one step ahead, maybe two. Honey in the brood nests can equate to stress for the queen. Becoming "honey bound" the colony will feel as if they need more space, even if ample room is available above the brood nest. Move supers of honey and pollen out of the brood nest and into the supers.
For those of you who use queen excluders, I usually only place the excluder on when there is enough comb built out on the frames. Placing the excluder under a dry or non-drawn-out super will only impede the workers from filling the frames out. Once you have a full super of honey, I find the excluders to be pretty useless since the queen will rarely traverse an entire box of honey to lay above it.
I would be remiss to not remind all who dare enter this blog that with great increases in brood comes great increases in mites. As stated above, colonies that start off strong do not stay strong without proper attention to the pests and diseases that befall them.
You will need to make some decisions about what you treat your mite levels with. How does this differ with an overwintered colony? The presences of a honey crop. Not all of the medications used to treat mites can be administered when there are honey supers on the hive. Pay close attention to the directions on the products you choose to use. Due to our certification with Certified Naturally Grown, we only use the organic acids: Formic and Oxalic.
In early spring, you may see some pretty poopy signs your bees have been "holding it" all
winter. Bees poop. Some poop on the hive boxes is normal. LOTS of poop is a sign of varying levels of not-normal. Bees can get dysentery: a bacterial infection of the intestines resulting in severe diarrhea. With bee diarrhea comes the possibility of nosema. Nosema is a spore-generating disease of the bee's midgut. While many beekeepers will state that their bees could have nosema, the only true diagnostic finding is a physical, postmortem, inspection of the bee's intestinal track.
There are many changes ahead of you and your overwintered colony: More frequent inspections, management of queen cells and swarm behavior, adding supers and harvesting a honey crop are just a few. The learning curve continues. Congrats on making it through winter, now its time to get to work .
Brad Garmon is the Owner and Chief Apiarist for the Commonwealth Bee Company. He is also an Ajunct Professor of Biology at Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia where he manages the University's honeybee research electives.
The Commonwealth Bee Company is always available to serve the beekeepers of Northern Virginia with in-state honeybee packages and nucs, inspection and management, and professional removal services.