In The Apiary: April

In the Apiary in April. Nigel Salmon.

1         Carry out thorough inspection of colonies

2         Check for queen cells – swarm control/supersedure

3         Monitor varroa population – mite drop

4         Keep a look out for Small Hive Beetle

The pussy willows have just started flowering here (12th March) and the bees have started foraging a little more freely. This has certainly been one of the mildest winters I can remember, and one of the driest.

April heralds the start of the beekeeping year insofar as regular inspections/manipulations are concerned. There should be days this month that are warm enough to carry out your first full inspections of the hives; if the bees are active and you feel comfortable in a T-shirt, then it should be alright.  For beginners, it is an excellent time of year to familiarise yourselves with the internal workings of the hive, as bees should behave quite placidly, being far too busy to react to what you are doing. Indeed, I would view any hive that was troublesome at this time of year as not worth keeping, and requeen it immediately – bees that are unmanageable in April will be ten times worse in July!

Make sure you have the smoker going well and gently open the first hive.

As you work through the broodnest you should be trying to answer five basic questions:

  1. Is the queen present and laying? If you don’t see the queen, but have seen eggs, one per cell, then all is well. If you do spot the queen, then now is a very good time to mark her – this year’s official colour is yellow.  If you like to clip your queens as part of swarm control, you should do this as well; clipping a queen’s wings will not prevent the bees from swarming, but it will buy you valuable time; just remove about a third of each of the big wings. I have personally only ever clipped a queen’s wings once in the whole time I have kept bees, and they promptly superseded her. However, a good number of beekeepers regularly clip their queens without incurring any problems.
  2. Is the colony building up well, or as fast as other colonies in the apiary? When you examine the bees you will probably find a few very advanced colonies, one or two weak ones, but by far the majority somewhere in the middle.  The more advanced colonies may well have one or more supers on already (and will be quick to make swarming preparations once conditions are right) – the medium-sized ones will probably be ready for their first (it is in this group that those bees with a less pronounced tendency to swarm will be found), but it is the weak colonies that demand careful scrutiny to ascertain what is holding them back.  Scattered brood would indicate a poor queen, and a large amount of drone brood mixed in with worker brood would point to an old queen who has run out of sperm, or an imperfectly mated queen from the previous year.  If the colony occupies at least 2/3 of the brood chamber then it is probably worth saving it, and I would either a) buy in a queen (that would have to be an imported queen) and introduce her using an introduction cage, after first removing the old queen (recent research has indicated that there is no need to remove the attendant workers for successful introduction), b) unite them to another colony, so long as both are healthy, killing the failing queen or c) transfer a frame of eggs from one of your best colonies and let them rear their own queen.
  3. Are there any signs of brood disease or other abnormality? The advice here is to become familiar with the appearance of normal brood, then anything abnormal should be obvious. Shaking most of the bees from a frame or two will enable you to see the brood more clearly – just make sure the queen is not on the frame.  Most good bee books give a description of brood diseases. If you think you may have a problem, please do ask a more experienced association member or your seasonal bee inspector.
  4. Has the colony sufficient room? If the colony occupies nearly all of the available space, then put a super on (above an excluder if it is the first) when you have finished the inspection; bees should not be using all the space available to them in the spring – putting a super on too early is better than putting one on too late.
  5. Has the colony sufficient stores to see it through to the next inspection? If in doubt, feed a gallon of syrup.

Swarm control. Towards the end of the month, some of the colonies may start swarming preparations, especially if the queen is in her second full season ( Thorne’s stock a device that can be fitted to a hive to trap the queen if she tries to leave with a swarm – might be worth a try if you are not around for a while and want to ensure you don’t lose a swarm). If you see several occupied queen cells, then you must make some sort of division or the bees will do it for you in a few days’ time.  You can do this by taking the frame with the queen, minus queen cells, and putting her into a fresh broodbox with drawn comb (preferable) or foundation on the original site, moving the old box with queen cells to one side; leave any supers with the old box. However, after several years, I have found that it is more successful to just put the queen alone into the new box, so long as it has some drawn comb and the bees are flying well; a frame of young bees can be shaken in with advantage. Temporarily pinning a strip of queen excluder over the entrance or placing a queen excluder under the broodbox for 24 hours will stop them absconding. These bees should be fed to enable them to draw out the foundation quickly and to prevent starvation should the weather turn bad.  If brood is provided, all the colonies I have dealt with have continued to rear more cells on any young brood, and their ‘swarm fever’ continue unabated.

At the end of a further week, the old box is moved to the other side of the new broodbox, whereupon all those bees that have learnt to fly will return to their old hive position, and thence to the new hive; the supers can now be placed on the new box. You can, at this point, either remove all but one queen cell in the old box, or divide the box into nuclei so that some form of selection can be made from the resulting queens.

Another option when finding queen cells, and my preferred method as it requires far less equipment, is to remove the queen on the frame she is on, minus any queen cells, and put this into a nucleus hive with another frame of sealed brood and two or three empty combs; this lot must be fed if there was not a lot of food on the transferred combs. In this case, the original box is left to rear its own queen, removing all but one queen cell a week later (in this case the bees should go on storing honey). Before removing the surplus queen cells, a nucleus could be made up from a couple of frames with a second queen cell, as an insurance against mishaps.

If, however, you see only one or two occupied queen cells, and these are on the face of the comb rather than on the edge, it is probable that the bees are arranging to supersede their queen. In this instance, I would leave them to get on with the job, but just keep an eye on them in case they change their minds and go the swarming route instead.

Varroa. Keep monitoring the varroa situation, and by far the most accurate way of doing this is by uncapping a patch or two of drone brood with an uncapping fork and looking for mites on the pupae. Counting natural mite fall over a week or two can lull you into a false sense of security and lead you to believe that your bees are fine (see BBKA newsletter for October 2007 – article on use of open mesh floors).  Also, do keep a wary eye out for Small Hive Beetle.

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