Updated Content and Dates: Jan 2017

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A Beekeeping Diary #4: Spring—Things Are Getting Busy

The last two weeks of April and the first week of May are one of the most interesting and critical times of year in this apiary, where lots of nucleus colonies are carried through the winter, and the most promising of these overwintered queens must be established in the honey producing colonies before the main flow starts in June. During late April and early May is the best time to rank all the surviving colonies, and make a preliminary list of potential breeders. Usually I’ll start with the honey producing colonies. Hopefully, this is where the breeders—the most important queens in the apiary—will be found. If you remember from last year’s essay: the colonies are all marked with colored tacks indicating when the colony was last requeened and what family each new queen represents. These queens come from the isolated mating yard and have a clipped wing. They are at least 20 months old and have lived their entire life among bees and combs untreated since 2002. Their first winter was spent in nucleus colonies and then, in 2006, they headed honey production colonies that made a good crop. To be considered as a breeder, a queen must pass all of these tests and still be heading a healthy, vigorous colony after her second winter. In the spring of 2004, I could find only one queen with all the qualifications of a fully tested breeder—the daughter of an SMR queen I obtained from the Glenn Apiaries. In 2005 I got 3 breeders from the overwintered honey producers. 2006 was the first year when I had a really good supply of these breeders, with extras in some of the families. Interestingly, by this time it was getting hard to find breeders from the SMR lines—my other families were gaining in strength, while the SMR families were in decline. (Don’t read too much into this—all of my SMR families came from just two pure SMR queens. This is much too small a sample to use for judging the whole program.)

When I can’t find all the breeders I need in the honey producing yards, I have to go back to the overwintered nucs and use queens that are only partially tested. This is how I maintained all my families during the brutal first stages of the selection process. The method seems to be sound, as the apiary has been gaining in strength and resilience year after year.

Now back to the nucleus colonies. I try to go around and rank all of them in one or two days during the last week of April. This is one of the most interesting jobs of the year. All of these queens are the same age, and it’s very clear to see which individuals and families are stronger after their first severe test. At this time I just mark all the nucs with a number (by lumber crayon) indicating the size of the clusters inside. In April you can learn about 90% of all there is to know about them by peeling back the corners of the grain bags used for inner covers. I only look further if there seems to be a problem or if it’s a colony that might supply a breeder queen; or become a drone mother.

Even though I’m not planning to graft any large batches of cells until the last few days in May, I need to identify the drone rearing colonies right away during the first good spring weather when pollen is coming in from the maples and willows. If grafting is going to start on May 31, then the selected drone mothers need to start laying eggs in the drone combs around May 10. Remember, if you’re using an isolated mating scheme with a relatively small number of colonies raising the drones, you are not mating your new queens to those drone rearing colonies—you are mating them to the mothers of those drone rearers. By using some of my overwintered nucs to rear drones, I’m always mating the new crop of queens to some of my breeders from the previous year. While evaluating those old breeders in the spring, I try to find the four best (representing four different families) that have not superceded and still have a healthy and vibrant colony after the queen’s third winter. If possible I also try to use each family for rearing drones only once every four years. 24 nucs headed by daughters of these four chosen colonies become the drone mothers for the current season.

On May 10 the dandelions are almost always in bloom, and I put the first drone comb in when the colonies are still in one box. I like to use old combs for this with a total of ½ --1 side of drone cells per colony. I make sure the colonies are strong (adding bees and brood if necessary) and put the combs toward the center of the brood nest. I watch these colonies much more closely than any others in the apiary right at this time—especially if a good dandelion flow is underway. 7-15 days after the first comb went in, the colonies are moved to the mating area and put on top of a second box containing seven combs of capped, liquid honey and three empty combs—one of which is another drone comb. 10-20 days later, a third box is added on top containing some honey, empty combs, and another drone comb. In the marginal conditions around my mating area, this seems to give the drone mothers the right combination of room and extra stores to keep them raising drones at the right time, no matter what the weather brings. They get very little attention after the third box is added.

But I got a little ahead of things, because we’re supposed to be back down in the valley just starting on the real spring work. Sometime during late April or early May, once the colonies have all been numbered and accounted for, the steady outdoor work begin in earnest. It’s an amazing time of year, and there always comes a day when we go to bed still worried about the poor bees and whether they will survive at all, and wake up the next morning to find that they are already completely out of control. Nucs need to be moved to their most advantageous locations, and the honey producing colonies need to be requeened and equalized. All these jobs must go steadily on, rain or shine, during the entire dandelion honey flow; which usually extends roughly between May 1 and May 25.

Once the process has begun, the general plan is to move a load of nucs each morning, and then spend the rest of the day equalizing, requeening, and adding more room in the honey producing yards. But the weather of course plays a big role in what is actually accomplished and when. If the days are warm and sunny, then a lot of manipulation and requeening gets done. When it’s cold and wet the moving process goes on all day—to free up more time later when the weather breaks.

Nucs are moved into the honey producing yards to replace winter loss; into holding yards for customer pick-up; and to other locations specially set up for producing the next crop of nucleus colonies. After ranking the nucs it’s easy to move and then deal with them in the right order, starting with the strongest. The colored pins show at a glance the family inside; and so they are routed, little by little, to the most advantageous places.

I always have one yard holding the baby nucs brought down from the isolation apiary in late summer. In spring they contain between ¼ -1/3 of my most valuable new queens and it’s important not to waste them. I use these queens to requeen honey producing colonies, or to head up splits made from those colonies. I like to do requeening in the spring by spending a couple of days just finding and removing as many undesirable queens as I can. Then on the third day, I catch all the queens needed from the baby nucs; clip their wings; put them in the introducing cages with a couple of workers and a plug of candy; and then transport them in a special box where I can keep track of the different families. As the queens are caught, a few of the poorest are left behind. The boxes of queenless brood are now stacked together with these weak nucs. In a few weeks these stacks will provide the bees and brood needed for this year’s isolated mating yard. Those “poor” queens come right to life once they’re surrounded by lots of young bees and brood, and if drones are raised, they are always representing last year’s breeders. After this job is done the caged queens are taken straight to the queenless honey producers and pushed between two frames at the top of the brood nest. Since I stopped treating the bees, I don’t think I have ever lost a queen using this procedure during the dandelion honey flow. Each colony is marked with a colored tack, showing the family of the new queen.

I work at all these jobs every year, but each season is a new experience depending on the weather, the condition of the bees, and the demand for bees, queens and honey. Much of the strength and resilience of the system comes from its great flexibility and high production per box. In April and May the decision can be make to offer more bees for sale; or to direct more resources into honey production or queen rearing. In a spring following very good winter survival the spring work seems like a scramble just to get all the nucs off to the customers and be sure all the other colonies have plenty of room. Following a heavy winter loss there’s less income in the spring, but there’s also more time available for each surviving colony, and many things can be done that are impossible in other years. If you’re moving towards a completely untreated apiary, the survivors left after a tough winter are the basis for much greater success in the future. By confining all colonies in one box during the entire dandelion flow, and removing combs of sealed brood, bees and new honey whenever they begin to get crowded, an amazing number of new colonies can be created during May. If you start these new colonies with queen cells, many of the varroa mites in that sealed brood will be too old to reproduce by the time the new queen’s brood is at the right stage for an infestation. This plan may in fact be a workable way to reduce varroa levels in the entire apiary. Even here, where the main honey flow starts in June, I’ve had good results producing honey with these new queens by confining them to one box and supering over an excluder. When I remove the honey, I put an empty shallow super below each brood nest, and these colonies usually surprise me by gathering almost all of their winter feed after September 15. The Russian-type bees have saved an enormous amount of time and money in the fall by finding most or all of their own winter stores. In the spring they can have a much smaller cluster than Italians need, and still make a good crop of honey.

A small batch of queen cells can work wonders in early May, but in general I don’t recommend grafting any large batches until the very end of May or early June. There are too many other jobs to do at this time, and the weather can easily go against you. Use May to ger your overwintered nucs straightened out, the breeders and drone mothers selected, and your honey producing bees set up with plenty of empty, drawn combs, and a few combs of old honey as a reserve. If set up right in May, these colonies require very little attention for the rest of the season—just supering and then harvesting the crop. The best time for raising new queens will come soon enough—in June and July.

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