By Hilary Kearney
For beekeepers, spring does not always start where it is marked on the calendar. Even within specific regions, the climate differs from year to year.
Instead, a beekeeper must pay attention to the weather patterns, what’s blooming and, most importantly, their bees to determine when spring actually begins. So, as we approach the official spring months, what should you be looking for inside (and outside) your hives?
If you live in a cold climate, you might not have been able to check your bees for several months. It’s important to find out how strong they’ve come through winter. From the outside on warmer days, you should see bees flying. You can also tap on the side of your hive and press your ear to listen for buzzing. As soon as weather allows, get in and inspect your brood box. Look for the following:
Signs of a queen (brood and eggs)
Healthy brood pattern (a solid pattern not a patchy one), and honey stores.
Good population numbers. A colony with a low population will be vulnerable to disease, parasites and starvation.
You may also want to check mite levels at this time via an alcohol wash or sugar shake. If any of the above is not meeting the criteria for a healthy hive, you’ll need to take action. I find that most colonies that make it to spring will flourish once the nectar flow begins. If the nectar flow has not started for your area and your bees are looking weak, it is a good idea to begin feeding them.
Pay attention to the blooming plants in your area and watch to see when things start to bloom, but you should also watch your bees. When the nectar flow begins, a healthy hive will have increased foraging activity. You may even start to see your bees wearing their “pollen pants”!
Look for newly built comb. It will be white and soft compared to the older darker combs. If you are letting your bees build natural comb, look for festooning bees.
You will also see newly stored nectar. It will be uncapped because the bees are still ripening it into honey. A healthy colony will also see a corresponding increase in brood.
Sometimes a colony will really surprise you with how quickly the population grows during a spring nectar flow. Be sure not to miss it!
If you overwintered with your supers on, you may need to move things around to give your bees room for their larger brood nest. Many beekeepers like to reverse their brood boxes. If you’ve set up your hive, as I recommend, with two brood boxes, check the lower one to see if the bees are actively using it. If the combs look empty, switch the position of these two boxes to encourage them to expand into it again. If you overwintered with just one brood box and your Flow® Super, you may want to add a second brood box to the bottom of your stack to allow your bees room to expand their brood nest.
If this is your first spring with bees, you have a very different “to do” list.
Make sure you reserve your packages and starter colonies early. They often sell out.
Build your Flow® Hive boxes and take steps to protect the wood, either with tung oil (western red cedar) or exterior house paint (araucaria). Give your equipment plenty of time to dry out before your bees arrive.
Find out if ants are a problem in your area. If so, you should take steps to protect your hive from invasions. Build or purchase a hive stand with legs and then create moats or sticky barriers around them to keep ants out.
Set up a water source for your bees and it’s a good idea to begin planting flowers for them as well.
Importantly, you should connect with your local beekeeping group to find out about mentorship opportunities and classes.
Spring is an exciting time to be a beekeeper and especially if it’s your first, you have a lot of fun in store. Enjoy!
Hilary Kearney is a full-time beekeeper in her home town of San Diego, California. Her business Girl Next Door Honey educates hundreds of new beekeepers each year. She is the author of the Beekeeping Like A Girl blog and maintains popular Instagram, Facebook and Twitter accounts. When she’s not rescuing bees, teaching about bees, photographing bees or managing one of her 60 colonies, she’s sleeping and dreaming of bees.