Springtime signifies the honey flow, growth, reproduction for a honey bee colony. The hot months of summer are when honey bees begin winter preparations. The queen may slow down in her egg laying and the focus of the hive tips away from brood rearing to foraging for nectar and storing honey for the winter. However, brood rearing isn’t completely abandoned because this is also the time when the hive is making winter bees, bees with larger fat stores whose physiology allows them to live months instead of weeks. Drone production also slows as swarm season ends and the need for drones diminishes. Summer is also a tricky time for queens. If a hive has a late swarm or loses a queen, it may be too late in the season for them to make a new queen on their own and the beekeeper may have to introduce a queen into the queenless hive instead. You may also see a phenomenon called bearding on your hives in the summer. This is when bees come out of the hive and cover the outside of the hive, some staying near the entrance to fan and cool the hive. This behavior helps to keep the inside of the hive cool.
Another concern of beekeepers in the summertime is the dearth. A dearth is when there is a lack of natural floral resources to provide the bees with nutrition (i.e. pollen and nectar). It is important to know what is blooming in the 6 miles around your apiary and when. Local weather can very so much that beekeepers even within a few miles of each other may have very different floral resources for their bees. Many beekeepers will feed their hives 2:1 sugar syrup in the late summer to bolster their winter honey stores, especially if there are drought conditions. With the dearth also comes robbing. Robbing is when either other honey bees or nectar-seeking insects like wasps will invade a weak hive and steal the stored honey from that hive, further weakening and often killing the colony being robbed in the process. Robbing screens can help with this problem as well as using feeders that are completely enclosed inside the hive.
Just as the population of a honey bee hive starts to wane in the summer, the Varroa mite populations in a hive begin to peak. If no steps are taken to test for and treat mites when the mite population spikes, then a beekeeper may find themselves with a dying colony in the fall. It is important to note that not all mite treatments can be used when honey supers are on the hive or when temperatures are above 85 degrees Fahrenheit, so it’s important to read the labels of products you are thinking about using. The label is the law!
A big thing to watch for in the spring is signs of disease in your hives. Cool, wet springs often bring brood diseases such as sacbrood, chalkbrood, Nosema/dysentery, and European foulbrood (EFB). Sacbrood is a viral disease where the larvae turn brown and pointy. Chalkbrood is a fungal disease where the larvae look like black, white, or gray mummies. Nosema apis is a microsporidian parasite that can cause dysentery (diarrhea) in bees that can be seen as tan to brown streaks on the tops of the frames and around the hive entrance. Bees can also get dysentery from too much ash in their diet or too much moisture in their hive. EFB is a bacterial disease that causes the larvae to look yellow, twisted, and “skeletal.” Treatment of these spring diseases includes feeding sugar syrup, taking care of moisture problems in the hive, and sometimes requeening the hive. Varroa testing and treatment should also begin in the spring.
In the early spring before many plants are blooming, beekeepers may also want to feed their colonies. Feeding pollen, the bee’s source of protein, can encourage your queen to lay more eggs. You may also want to feed 1:1 sugar syrup to encourage comb production if you have undrawn foundation frames. Sometimes feeding too much sugar syrup may induce a swarm if the bees choose to store the syrup in the brood chamber (called backfilling) and the queen runs out of space to lay her eggs.
Spring is the time of year where honey bees, like most animals, reproduce. Though the queen lays eggs throughout most of the year to replenish and boost the population of the colony, the true, natural reproduction of the honey bee colony is a swarm. If you hive survived the winter, has a laying queen, and has pollen coming in, you will need to watch for signs that your colony may be ready to swarm. Since swarming causes the loss of bees and introduces a non-native species into the environment, beekeepers try to prevent swarms either by giving their bees more drawn comb or by splitting their colonies. Another technique that may be useful in the spring is called reversing. This is moving an empty box of frames from the bottom of the hive to the top. The bottom box may be empty (no bees) because the bees move up to the top of the hive during the winter. This is also a good time to replace frames of old, dark comb from the empty box with fresh foundation frames.
Jen Haeger is a new master beekeeper and board member of A2B2.