Beekeeping is a fluid art. Existing in that flow can be both fantastic and frustrating, usually at the same time. Reading the weather, the bees, and your own self admits you into the club of beekeepers that have existed for thousands of years. Many years may pass where you feel as if Mother Nature has given you a gift of honey and strong hives, only to have it pulled from you in a matter of weeks. Do not fret though. Keeping bees is not a win-or-lose battle from year to year, but a measure of commitment throughout the years. For many of you, March will be the first time you look in your bee-loved hives this year. In our operation, it is a source of excitement and dread. But what is done is done, and the spring represents a renewal of life and the continuation of the cycle.
Here are some guidelines for starting the season on the right wing:
Removing the dead. When you have had the chance to pop your lid for an early spring inspection, you may find that some of your hives have died. You may find a hive full of honey and no bees. Deciphering why the hive died can be a useful learning tool for the upcoming season. It is often best to take honey frames away to conserve for a rebuild in the upcoming months. During cold, wet winters (like the one we suffered this year), you may find bees that look to have starved but are surrounded by honey. Cold temps can restrict the bees movement and can cause some or all of the bees to starve. Whatever the state of your dead hive, it must be cleaned out and checked for drone comb, broken frames, and rotten boxes, lids, and bottoms.
Dealing with live hives. Hives that have made it through the winter by this time should have eggs and brood. The rearing of bees requires lots of honey and pollen. You may place your extra honey combs in hives that are under weight, or you may feed them a light 1:1 feed (sugar:water) to help them along. If your hive requires feeding and you have no honey frames, keep a watchful eye on them for starvation. Pollen supplement can be added to help them when rainy weather restricts them from foraging. Combine weak or queen-less colonies when the weather permits you to do so. Know what your treatment strategy is going to be for the upcoming season; mites and disease can quickly become a nightmare if left unchecked.
Planning. Planning is the most important thing that a beekeeper needs to do in early spring. Queens, packages, and some supplies need to be ordered in advance of the upcoming season. Staying ahead of your bees is the best strategy.
I would like to spend a moment considering the weather of the last season. Reading the weather is a very important aspect of beekeeping and I believe it can greatly improve your success. Last year was full of extremes, starting in May with 95 degree temps that quickly gave the mites an upper hand in the colonies. When warm temps push brood (and therefore mite) rearing ahead of schedule, by the fall you quickly find out just how bad it can get. In addition to high temps in May, we had a cool-down for some weeks in late June/early July. A reduction in temps can reduce the brood-rearing, thereby increasing the amount of mites per bee far too early in the season. Having high mites and/or disease in the fall can greatly impact the colonies winter survival. This winter was colder and wetter than usual, and we have found that many of our smaller colonies had perished because of it.
This year is foretold to be warm and dry for spring. Getting your mites in check sooner rather that later needs to be a top priority. Many of challenges of beekeeping are out of our control. We can only facilitate our hive the best that we can, and the rest is left to fate. Knowing what you can influence is the biggest part of the equation and experience is the only solution.
Have a great spring and happy keeping!