April is one of the busiest months for a beekeeper. The weather begins to settle down, more plants come into bloom, especially trees, and beehive populations continue to increase. Among the concerns for a beekeeper in April are hive inspection and manipulation, monitoring food stores, queen evaluation and possible replacement, swarm control and capture, making increase to establish new colonies, and equalizing hives.
Settled weather and rising temperatures allow us to examine and manipulate a hive in more depth. Use this opportunity to clean or replace the bottom board and to remove any entrance reducers or mouse guards. This is also a good time to replace aging hive bodies, as the colony is still relatively small and the April inspections often involve removing frames for other purposes anyway.
Check for stored honey. There should be at least two frames of honey, if not more, clear up until the major honey flow in your area. If you find less, then feed with sugar syrup to bridge the gap. With experience, a beekeeper can learn to estimate, by hefting one end of the hive before examining frames, whether or not the colony has enough stored food. Weather can be changeable in the Pacific Northwest and two frames of honey can vanish in less than two weeks if those two weeks were to be cold and wet. It would be a shame to get a colony this far only to lose it to starvation which could be avoided. Stay ahead of feeding and use a feeding method whereby the syrup remains accessible to a cluster in cool weather, such as an inside feeder (also known as a division board feeder), or a hive top feeder placed over the cluster, so that the syrup remains within reach of the cluster on a chilly spring day.
A healthy, vigorous queen is key to the productivity and survival of a hive. With experience and with the help of a mentor or other help offered through local bee clubs, one can learn to evaluate a queen and her brood pattern. While you have the hive open for an April inspection, consider the following queen attributes. Is the queen laying in a solid, regular pattern? Is the queen old and beginning to fail? Is she a drone layer? Is the colony preparing to swarm? If the queen needs to be replaced, April is a good month to do so. The population of an over-wintered hive also reflects the quality of a queen, and ought to be at least ten to twelve frames of bees in mid-April, certainly not less than eight. If larger, the colony may swarm in coming weeks, before the honey flow. If smaller, perhaps a combination or a boost is in order.
In my mind, the two notions of swarm issues and the making of increase are intertwined, so I will address them together here, since making divides can be part of your swarm control and management. Your strategy to obtain a good honey crop as well as to minimize swarming can be attained by reducing congestion in a strong hive with the aim of planning for a peak population at the start of the main honey flow in your area, usually around late May in the Willamette valley, later in cooler areas. To do this, one may remove several frames of brood with adhering bees, perhaps anywhere between two and six frames, depending on the strength of the donor or “parent” colony. Be sure not to remove the existing queen accidentally. One may make up a nuc or a single story hive, utilizing these frames, by adding a purchased queen. Alternatively, frames of bees and brood removed this way may also be used to boost the population of a weaker but queenright colony. If you observe swarm preparation while taking out frames, you may make up a divide including one or more queen cells, which should result in a mated and laying queen about three weeks later. This so-called equalizing, or balancing, of hives in your apiary is one of the best things you can do in order to reduce swarming, maximize honey production, and assist colony survival. Of the eighteen frames in your parent hive, shoot for a colony with a good older queen or a better replacement queen, ten or more frames well (75% or more) covered with bees, four to six empty frames for the queen to lay in, and at least two frames of honey. Leave the colony with the queen, some brood and some empty frames in the lower box, as the queen tends to move up over time in her egg-laying.
Another plan for increase might be to remove the good, older queen from a strong hive showing swarm preparation (congestion and the presence of swarm cells), along with three or more frames of brood with adhering bees. This is equivalent to removing a swarm before they swarm on their own and can greatly reduce or eliminate the swarm impulse. The larger hive left behind can raise a queen from two or three swarm cells you leave intentionally, or can be requeened with a purchased queen after scraping out other swarm cells. Incidentally, removing unwanted swarm cells gives the beekeeper a chance to taste royal jelly, an ancient food unchanged for millennia.
To re-queen or to make up divides, one may need a small number of queens. These may be hard to come by on short notice. Check ads in the bee periodicals placed by producers who state the price and availability of one to ten queens; some producers have a larger minimum order. Learn who in your area may be a larger beekeeper who may be willing to sell a small quantity from the stock many beekeepers keep on hand in a “queen bank.” Or perhaps somebody in your club may be putting together a group order. Some of the bee supply outlets stock queens but supply is variable. It is well to plan queen needs ahead. Placing a queen order in January or February is not too early.
Other ways to make increase include installing a package of bees, purchasing a five-frame nuc and capturing a swarm. Since a nuc comes with an already accepted and laying queen, it is, in effect, three-to-five weeks ahead of a package or a captured swarm. Capturing a swarm can provide you with additional bees to boost a weaker hive, or a spare queen, or just another start-up. It helps to have more than enough boxes and frames ready to go.
Before closing up the hive after inspection and manipulation, checking food stores, and making divides, monitor for mite levels with the mite drop method, the sugar shake method or the alcohol wash method and treat with a “soft” treatment if levels are too high, as you will soon be supering.
In conclusion, I would emphasize that much of what I have described here to do in April is dependent upon planning and actions taken in previous months, such as ordering queens or packages and having hive bodies and frames ready to go. In addition, I would encourage beekeepers to avail themselves of the many benefits to be gained by attending local bee club meetings, field days, bee schools and mentoring programs. Those who wish to take their beekeeping skills to the next level might want to look into the Oregon Master Beekeeper Program offered by the OSBA in collaboration with Oregon State University.