A lot of what you did in April needs to continue in May. But if you are new to beekeeping, here are some thoughts that could help you get started or provide a review of what books and classes have already taught you.
May is the month when packages and nucs with bees become available in Oregon. Many stores that sell bee keeping gear will also sell packages of bees, but you need to order them ahead. You can also order bees in advance from commercial beekeepers who will then order packages from mostly California and sell them here. Also some local commercial beekeepers sell packages or nuc boxes with excess bees raised in their colonies that have been in California pollinating almonds. Bees should be ordered in March or April to guarantee delivery up to late May or early June.
Now is the time to check what you have in terms of equipment and make sure it is ready for new bees. To get your package bees started, you will need to set up the first box with frames on a bottom board and have an inner cover and a top to complete your hive. A stand for the hive should also be ready in the place where you want your bees to stay. You will need to feed your bees to help them get started. There are many options for feeding your bees. The shipping box may still have a fair amount of sugar syrup and may be placed over the vent hole of the inner cover. If the can does not cover this hole, do some temporary plugging of the space beyond the can to prevent bees from exiting their brood into the empty super. The bees usually empty the can quickly, depending on the amount they were given in their package. There are many other options for feeding and that should be figured out as part of getting ready to receive your package of bees.
Many of us older beekeepers have back trouble, and you may want western boxes to make up your hive. Western boxes will weigh less than a deep box. You can use western boxes for the entire hive and only have to work with one size frame. Or you can use deeps and westerns or all deeps. Find what works best for you. Remember that a deep with bees and honey stores is heavy if you have to move it. A deep full of honey is not for those of us who are not into weight lifting at the gym.
A package of bees is a box with wooden top, bottom, and ends, and screen sides. Usually 3 pounds of bees are in a package. The box has a four-inch diameter hole in the top middle of the box for a can of syrup that will be inside the package—i.e., the bottom of the can will be flush with the top of the box and a caged queen is hung in a slit from this hole. When you get home with your package and are ready to install the bees, take the package to your hive, which should be placed where you want the bees to live on your property and should have frames in it. There are two ways that I know of to get the bees from their shipping box into your hive. The method I prefer starts with removing the hive lid and inner cover and taking out five or six frames—enough to fit the shipping box inside your super. Now remove the can of syrup. You will need your hive tool to lift the can and get a hold on it to lift it up out of the box. There will be bees hanging in a cluster over an opening that gives the bees access to the syrup. Move the can and adhering bees gently over the frames and shake the bees off the can. Set the can aside. Slide the queen cage over to the open top of the package box and lift it out. Hang the queen in her cage between two frames near the center of the frames left in the hive. Take the box with the remaining bees and shake some of them gently over the frames around the queen cage. Keep the bees on the frames and not in the space where you removed frames. Then set the box with remaining bees in that space. Put the inner cover on and turn the syrup can over and place it over the hole in the inner cover so that the bees in the box can access the syrup. Now put an empty super over the can, and put the lid on the hive.
After about 24 hours, take the box out. Most of the bees should be out of the box. Then gently put the frames that were left out of the hive back, and, if there are bees still in the box, set it as close as possible to the entrance top hole facing the hive. Hopefully after another 24 hours those bees will also have found their new home. If there is still syrup in the can, you can set it over the inner cover as before. You should leave the queen in her cage for several more days (4–5) as she may not have had time to be accepted by the bees in the package.
If you want to leave all the frames in the hive, you can put the queen in her cage in the between two frames after removing the syrup can. You may want to take a frame out to give yourself some room to work in the hive. When you have the queen in place and the frame back in the hive (if you took one out), then shake the bees out of the package box into the hive. Sometimes a few bees remain in the package box. That is okay. When you are done, put the package box on its side in front of the entrance. Put on the hive inner cover and place the can with remaining syrup over the inner cover hole. Put an empty super over the can and the lid on top. When the can is empty, you may want to replace it with a feeder jar and continue to feed the bees.
There are many kinds of queen cages and each one is a little different regarding release of the queen. I will tell you about two of these cages. One made of wood has three round spaces in a wooden rectangle with a hole in each end and a screen top. One hole will be filled with queen candy and may or may not have a cork closing that hole to bees outside the cage. The cork is to make sure the queen is not released before you are ready to hive the package. The candy will be eaten by the workers, and the time it takes should give the queen enough time to be accepted by the bees in the package. So, when you are moving the queen in her cage from the package to the hive, remember to remove the cork. If the frames are drawn out, the cage can be pushed into the wax cells between two frames below the top bar. The cage must be placed so that the screen side of the cage is accessible to the workers and the candy filled hole is down. The workers should eat the candy in 3–4 days. Check that the queen has been released after 4–5 days. If the candy is eaten and she is no longer in the cage, take it away and gently adjust the frames where the cage hung by reversing one of the frames so that the damaged wax cells will be repaired correctly. Do not do anything else. The workers may still be anxious from the trauma of packaging and shipping, and anxious bees may kill the queen. If you leave them alone another two weeks or so, but watch what they are doing at the entrance, your queen has a better chance of being accepted. Watch the workers as they come and go over the next couple of weeks. They should start bringing in pollen to make food for new larvae. So, pollen loads coming into a hive is suggestive of a queenright colony. After a couple of weeks, you should be able to see brood and look for new eggs and young larvae. You do not have to find the queen. The more frames you move and the more time you spend in the hive, the harder it is on your new colony. Look at it this way: if a giant came by your house and took the roof off, how would that make you feel?
The other type of queen cage that I have seen in these shipping packages is smaller with only one hole into which a black tube has been placed. The tube is filled with candy and plugged with a cork. I do not like these cages because, if you remove the plug and the bees eat out the candy too soon, the queen may be killed. If you wait a day or two to remove the plug, then you have to disturb the bees one more time before they are queenright. It is a toss up as to what is best. I would remove the plug when the bees are first set up and cross my fingers.
If you start with a nuc box of bees, they will most likely come on five deep frames. The frames are drawn out and the queen should be laying. The hive will have to be a deep to accommodate the frames from the nuc. This limits your option to start beekeeping with a different size hive box. But it is an advantage as the queen is already established and laying, or should be. Transfer the nuc box frames to your hive set up and add five frames to fill the space, and your colony is ready to go.
If you do not have deep frames with drawn comb, then you should be prepared with frames that have foundation. There are many options for frames these days: all plastic, wooden frames with a plastic foundation that has been coated with beeswax, wooden frames with all wax foundation, or wooden frames with no foundation.
If you expect the bees to draw comb on a wooden frame with no foundation, you must think like worker bees. I am told that a hive facing true north and south will draw comb in these frames correctly. That is without cross comb or other designs that inspire the workers. Placing the empty frames between two drawn frames also helps them draw comb correctly, but with only five drawn frames that gets challenging. You want to have the frames from the nuc centrally placed in the hive.
Personally I do not like plastic in my colonies, being an old opinionated beekeeper, so I use foundation and then I don’t worry about true north/south or give the workers any choice of their own design. I also have a feeder in my bottom deep box, so I only have four frames to worry about if I get a 5-frame nuc of bees.
What about disease in old frames? The color of the wax gives an indication regarding the age of the frame. The older the frame, the more likely it is to harbor disease. When you have new comb being built, it will be white. As comb ages, it gets colored by stores and brood rearing, going from white to yellow brown, and eventually it becomes very dark. The older the comb, the more likely disease organisms are to be present. I make it a practice to replace one or two combs every year from each box, except honey supers. Yes, a lot of work, but my bees are healthier.
Give the bees several days to allow the queen to begin to lay eggs before you do your first examination of your new colony. Things to learn from a mentor should include finding brood and identifying eggs, young larvae, older larvae, pre pupae, and pupae. When you find lots of eggs on a frame, the queen is often on that frame. Moving slowly and using as little smoke as possible will increase your chances of seeing the queen. However, if you see eggs, you can assume your colony is queenright. Looking for the queen takes time and can be hard on a colony, especially a new colony.
This is spring and weather can give lots of wonderful flowers and good weather for bees, and it can give cold, rainy weather. Feeding bees can be critical to colony survival. Checking the weight of your colony can help you identify the need to feed. If you are new to lifting your hive, you may need a season or two to know what the weight feels like on a colony in need.
Feeding can be critical, especially for a strong colony if the weather has been good and then takes a turn to cold and wet. The strongest colonies are in the most danger of starving if
workers cannot get to forage. It is heartbreaking to open a colony that was doing really well after several days of rain and have bees fall off the comb as you lift it out, lots of heads down in the cells and lots of bees dead on the bottom board. It is difficult to save a colony in this state. So, if you have strong colonies and the forecast is for rain, get out there and feed. If the rain lasts more days than two or three, you may want to feed when it is raining. Try not to stress the colony by opening it just enough to feed and being as quick as possible.
Spring and early summer feeding is critical here in the Willamette Valley if weather is rainy for several days. I use 3 units water and 5 units of sugar whatever the season to feed my bees. Other beekeepers like a lower sugar solution in spring and higher sugar solution late summer and fall. This more closely mimics the nectar flow. You get to decide how you want to do it.
If you are lucky enough to have overwintered colonies, watch their growth. If the queen is good and the colony gets strong, they are susceptible to starvation if the weather gets bad for several days. Feeding is a challenge in the Pacific Northwest as we do tend to get rainy weather.
Varroa mites will also be doing well in strong colonies. It is critical to know how to sample, what your thresholds are, and what treatment you will use. Talk with other beekeepers to see what your options are and how they should be applied. Companies selling treatments should also be able to help you. Mite populations can grow quickly, and it is important to sample often. Maybe twice a month in spring and early summer when both bee and mite populations are growing. If your mite treatment is working, mite populations should decrease—although they will probably not disappear.