Hopefully this month, as the Covid restrictions start to ease in the UK, we will once more be able to meet outside with fellow beekeepers, to support one another in the care for our bees. Even if you cannot meet up, it is important to keep in contact with other beekeepers by telephone or email in order to compare what is happening in hives, get advice and give encouragement. If you have an out-apiary and you or someone you have been in contact with develops Coronavirus, you are not allowed to leave your home, so you will need to ask another beekeeper to look after your bees. April is still a critical time for colony survival but changes are happening and it would be irresponsible to neglect our husbandry, which might allow swarms to depart or diseased colonies to be robbed out spreading pests and diseases to other colonies and apiaries. To ensure the health and well-being of colonies, we need to get organised to make each visit purposeful.
Spring is in the air at last and all being well, we can look forward to better times ahead. Many trees and flowers are now in blossom and for some time, our bees have been bringing in different shades of pollen from golden yellow, orange to grey.
Due to the cold air temperatures in March, you may not yet have managed a first quick check inside your hives. If you haven’t, it is imperative you do so as soon as possible on a warm, wind-free day when the temperature is above 15°C. Two weeks ago in a balmy 16.3°C, we managed quick checks on two of our strong hives, where the bees were piling in with pollen. At this visit, we didn’t stop to look for the queen or eggs, just wanting to check that each colony had over-wintered successfully. Also, we gave them clean floors and checked they still had enough stores until our first full inspection. As expected, there was sufficient fresh pollen and nectar, plus 4-5 frames laid up with sealed brood. Surprisingly though, one colony already had sealed drone brood but on the outer edges of the nest where it should be. This made it essential to begin swarm prevention straight away, by providing extra space for the queen to lay and the workers to place stores outside the brood nest.
As soon as the weather permits:
- All hives should be given new/clean floors. Aim to have a spare floor so you can replace the floor of one hive and complete its inspection quickly. Next scrape off the dirty floor (collect the debris for burning later), then scorch it thoroughly before placing this cleaned one on the next hive.
- Place the bottom brood box on the new floor, ensuring the brood has plenty of empty space for the queen to lay in, plus pollen then nectar surrounding it.
- Depending on the style of hive and strain of bee, additional space may be needed for the queen to lay. This could be a second full brood box or half brood, placed on top, preferably with some drawn comb at the centre).
Act According to Colony Needs
We have lost one colony this winter and have heard of other colony losses and weak colonies. Your actions this month will depend on the size of each colony, what you observe happening in each hive and the actions you need to take to keep visits to a minimum, so the colony can be maintained healthily without swarming. April can still be a critical month for smaller or weak colonies without sufficient stores, so these will still need feeding and should not have supers placed on them yet. If it remains cold continue to feed fondant but switch to syrup in a contact feeder, once the danger of sudden temperature changes from day to night has passed. Contact feeders simulate a nectar flow and will help stimulate the queen to lay.
Colonies that are building up well, have good stores and are not being fed, could now have a queen excluder and super added. Bees will naturally put their stores above the brood and this should prevent them clogging the nest up with stores and leaving the queen nowhere to lay, thus helping to prevent swarming. Very populous colonies could be given two supers and providing them with drawn comb, if available, will help persuade the workers to go upwards.
In April, weekly inspections should be underway as soon as temperatures are above 15°C but preferably at least 17°C for longer inspections. Plan ahead to have equipment ready to avoid unnecessary visits. Also, think through what you will need to do so you can keep the hive open for as short a time as possible but depending on what you see in the hive, your actions may need to change from what you planned. Start by observing the entrance. A busy entrance with lots of foragers coming and going is likely to signify a strong colony, while the quantity of pollen coming in might indicate how well the queen is laying. Before removing any frames, begin by recording how many seams of bees you can see down between them. Establish the colony is ‘queen right’ by observing whether there is a regular pattern of eggs, larvae and unbroken areas of biscuit-coloured brood.
The main things to look for each visit:
- Are there eggs? (If present you don’t need to see the queen.)
- Are there enough stores? (The equivalent of at least 2 full frames of nectar/honey + pollen.)
- Is there sufficient space in the brood nest and for the workers to put stores elsewhere, in good quality comb?
- Do the adult bees look healthy?
- On examining one or two brood frames closely, are there any abnormal cells?
- Compared to your records, has the colony built up from your last visit?
- Are there signs of swarming?
It is also normal to see some dome-shaped drone brood towards the bottom of frames and towards the outside of the nest in April. However, if you see drone brood, with excessively domed cappings, appearing amongst the worker brood (because it’s been laid in worker cells) the queen will be failing within the next few weeks. If there is little or no normal worker brood your only options are to requeen or unite as soon as possible. If you have another colony that is building well and is disease free, take out a ‘test frame’ of eggs/very small larvae. After removing the failing queen, insert the ‘test frame’ into the centre of the brood nest so they will raise a new queen, before laying workers appear. This will give you time to decide whether to let them raise this virgin queen, prepare another colony to unite with or acquire a new queen locally. Take the ‘test frame’ from a good colony with traits you like, shake off all the bees and make sure you mark it with a drawing pin and record the date. This way, you can calculate the dates when any queen cells will be sealed and the queens emerge; in order to choose the best one, then destroy all others to avoid swarming.
Use Your Records to Help You
At each visit record:
- how many frames the brood nest occupies to check expansion at your next inspection.
- whether the colony is building, static or dwindling. (Lack of colony expansion if the weather and forage are good, particularly in comparison with other colonies, could be signs of a failing queen or disease.)
- note whether there are eggs, larvae and brood in a good pattern
- if you’ve seen the queen
- if there is enough space for the brood nest to expand
- the number of frames of stores + space outside the brood nest to store more. (The equivalent of at least two full frames + pollen should last a colony until your next visit).
- Make a note of anything you may need to do/check or equipment needed when you next inspect.
Regular Comb Change
Check the age and state of the frames throughout the colony as old comb harbours pathogens and continued use decreases the cell size leading to stunted bees. Damaged comb reduces the space available for storage and egg laying which can be critical at this time of year. Current thinking about the preferred method of comb change is to do a Shook Swarm, as this is the only method that removes all pathogens from the combs in one go and also removes all varroa mating in brood cells. However, this is violent and stressful for the bees and should only be carried out, in good weather towards the end of the month or in May, on strong colonies, which can recover quickly! Caution; if you have close neighbours nearby, this is not an acceptable method to use unless you can check that people are not around. Alternatively, the Bailey Comb Change method can be used or an adapted Bailey for small colonies or those suspected of having Nosema. These methods are best done if there is a good nectar flow on but this could be simulated by feeding the bees on sugar syrup. If unsure or wanting more advice about how to implement any of these manipulations, check on Beebase or email an experienced beekeeper for advice.
Spring Feeding & Queen Marking
If needed and you haven’t added supers for honey production, once the danger of cold night temperatures is over, bees can be fed on sugar syrup (2kg sugar to 1.25L warm water). This stimulates the young worker bees’ wax glands and encourages the queen to increase her egg laying and has the added benefits of saving your bees if their stores have become dangerously low.
If you need to mark the queen and it is sufficiently warm, early spring is a good time to find her while colony numbers are still comparatively low. When searching for the queen, use a minimum amount of smoke to avoid causing the bees to run. If she is a 2020 queen or an unmarked queen that superseded at the end of last season, she will still need to be marked blue but any new queens emerging this year will be white.
Inspecting for Diseases
If you haven’t already managed a varroa count, do so now and if needed, instigate a treatment regime. Dedicate one inspection this month to checking for disease and brood abnormality. Choose a bright, warm, windless day and warn your neighbours, as you will need to shake the bees off frames. If you suspect a colony may have disease always leave this colony inspection till last so as not to accidently spread pathogens into healthy hives.
However, on seeing the tell-tale streaking of dysentery on the hive exterior and internal surfaces do not shake bees off the frames, just gently brush them aside. Bee dysentery is caused by poor nutrition when the bees have consumed fermented syrup or stores with too high a water content but it can exacerbate the spread of the gut disease Nosema. This is often a problem in the early spring after infected bees have been confined to the hive over winter. Then cell-cleaning activities infect the young worker bees and the millions of Nosema spores produced are spread around the colony. As the spores remain viable for over a year, change out infected equipment as soon as possible, placing the bees gently on to clean frames and hive parts by carrying out an adapted Bailey Comb Change for a weak colony. Do not do a Shook Swarm on bees that have a gut disease! As well as being stringent about hygiene, infected equipment can then be treated away from the apiary, with 80% acetic acid fumigation but care must be taken to research this method on the BBKA website or the APHA booklet ‘Common Pests, Diseases and Disorders of the Adult Honey Bee.’ With the other form, Nosema ceranae, there will be no visible signs other than the colony not thriving and failing to build beyond on 3-4 frames.
When looking for other diseases, especially EFB or AFB, you only need to look at brood frames so start by removing any supers and the frames of stores at the end of the brood box. Look closely at the adult bees for any deformities and if you find your queen place her safely in a queen cage in your pocket. Then shake all the bees off each frame in turn, so you can examine every cell. Do this with a sharp jerk down into the space you have created in the brood box. Know what good brood should look like; if any cells look ‘wrong’ don’t just ignore them until there are more at a later date and it’s too late – get advice! There has been an increase of EFB outbreaks in our region over the last few years and those beekeepers who acted quickly were able to save their colonies. If you see even a few cells that definitely don’t look right, the best way is to take a photograph and send it to our Seasonal or Regional Bee Inspectors, whose details can be found on the website. They can tell you what arrangements will be made or give you good advice if it’s a problem other than foulbrood.
Look for the unusual within the usual. They can be difficult to spot but not on this frame!
Swarm Prevention & Control
To avoid early swarming, keep a check on colony expansion. This is when you will be glad of the spare equipment you prepared over winter. As the colony expands and bees are covering about 7 frames, the queen will need additional space to lay, the workers will need more space to hang and process the nectar into honey, as well as to accommodate their growing numbers at night. A frame of eggs will become 3 frames of adult bees; also, nectar processing takes up far more space than the eventual honey. If already on a double brood box, place a queen excluder above the top brood box and add a super. Keep adding supers before needed to let them develop the ‘hive smell’ and keep the workers busy drawing comb. However, make sure any chemical spring varroa treatments are finished (unless using MAQS) and remember not to feed while supers are on, as it is illegal to sell honey contaminated with sugar syrup. Just prior to placing on the hive, put the new box of fresh foundation in a warm place such as a car or greenhouse, to make it more attractive to the workers. As each colony continues to build, swarming is the natural process to aid reproduction and could be a major problem, while neighbours are still working from home. Try to maintain weekly inspections, watch for an increase in drone numbers, check if queen cups are being polished or have eggs inside and be on the lookout for queen cells charged with royal jelly and larvae. Read up on how to perform an artificial swarm.
Don’t Let Asian Hornets Establish Here!
Although the pandemic restrictions are likely to have greatly limited the migration of Asian Hornets to the UK last year, once people are allowed to travel abroad again this situation could rapidly change. Remember to keep an eye open for them and have bait stations where you can easily watch and replenish regularly. For more information or to report any sightings go to www.nonnativespecies.org/alerts/asianhornet or email firstname.lastname@example.org
The Beekeeping Season is Underway
The devastating Covid statistics over the past year, should remind us all to reflect on our need for good hygiene and husbandry. Time to read through past records, look at your colonies purposefully and keep ahead of your bees, while hopefully enjoying the spring weather. Have a good season!
Check list for April
- Weekly inspections needed, still following current Covid guidance
- Check colony is queen right + good brood pattern
- Good time to mark the queen
- Ensure enough stores till next inspection
- If feeding still, use fondant while nights are cold, change to syrup as temperatures rise
- Remove old combs, change colonies on to clean equipment
- Check for varroa & treat if necessary
- Inspection for brood & adult diseases
- Record expansion rate & ensure colony has space
- Be ready to perform an artificial swarm
- Be on the lookout for Asian Hornets.