Beekeepers have something to do almost all year. We have tried to summarise some key events and duties throughout the year into seasons below. This is a guide only – but you will need to use your own judgement to allow for differences in seasons from year to year:
Thanks to Steve Fulton for providing this article.
Preparing for the winter months
As we approach the end of December it’s time to consider treating colonies for varroa with Oxalic Acid whilst there is no brood present. Some beekeepers use the vaporisation method and others the trickle method but there is a general feeling that the latter is easier and safer for the hobby beekeeper. Oxalic Acid solution for trickling can be bought from the equipment suppliers, along with a syringe applicator or dosing bottle. The job is best done on a bright, dry day at the end of December with a temperature around 5oC.
Ensure that you have your feeders all cleaned up for use in Winter. Thick sugar syrup (white granulated not brown, 1 litre water/2 kilos sugar) during September – please note over time syrup will begin to ferment in open air so it is best to make small quantities as sometimes bees will not take this syrup down. If this happens, rub a little honey from their stores around the feeder entrance to get them started. As it gets colder it is best to use Apisuc or Ambrosia syrup in the feeders as required, ( you can use this product from the start but it is a little more expensive). After you are sure they have enough stores on board to last them the first few months of winter, they can be left in peace. If, however, you find the hive to be light when checking later in the year, or at oxalic acid trickle time, a pack of fondant can be given directly above your brood/super frame using an eke to give space for the pack of fondant.
Check colonies every two weeks and heft or weigh each one to estimate food stores. If any are light, add a slab of fondant on top of brood frames using an eke to give the space needed below the crown board and insulation.
Check stored combs and remove any signs of wax moth and any larvae found. Keep frames of comb in super or brood boxes in a cool place. If you have several boxes they can be stored in the apiary on a stand, covered top and bottom with a queen excluder to keep out the mice and topped with a sound roof. For small numbers of supers it is easier to store supers of empty comb on the hives above the crown board and insulation.
It is a good time to review the performance of your colonies over the past year and make plans for the coming year. Hopefully your hive records will give you good indications which are your best hives and good enough for development and queen rearing in the coming year. Maintenance and repair of hardware is best done in the winter. The construction of new brood and super boxes, frames and boards can be completed if you are intending to expand your apiary.
By the end of January, healthy colonies should be starting to expand very slowly as the queen starts to lay in a small way through January. It is important that stores are maintained in close proximity to the cluster so continue to add fondant if required.
Spring is in the air
On Sunny days in early Spring, when the temperature creeps up over 6C, you will see your bees making cleansing flights or maybe collecting water from nearby sources. If the temperature creeps up a little more to 8C or above, the bees will seek out early flowering plants like Aconites, Snowdrops, Hellebores and winter flowering shrubs like Mahonia and Vibernum.
Brood rearing also begins in February. To ensure there are enough stores, heft the hives weekly by lifting them at each side (or weigh them with a spring balance) and feed only if they feel light or are losing weight. If the hive is well provisioned and pollen is going in, leave the hive alone. If in doubt – feed!
More colonies are lost from starvation during March that any other time. This is due to the increased requirement for honey and pollen to feed the developing brood, so it is worth doing regular checks.
Any feeding is best done on a warmish day to reduce the risk of chilling the bees and brood. The feed should be placed directly on top of the frames as the bees are reluctant to leave the brood box to go up into feeders at this time of year. Slabs of fondant in polythene bags can be slit and placed, slit down, on the frames and a 50 mm eke used to give the required spacer. The bees will quickly find the fondant through the slits and start to move up into the void they create as they consume the food. Don’t forget to provide a water source for the bees if there isn’t one close at hand.
Check that entrances are clear of dead bees. Remove the mouse guard and rake out any bees that are blocking the entrance and re-secure the guard.
It should be clear, when observing the activity at your hives, if there are any weak or even dead colonies. Any suspect dead colonies should be examined and it your fears are confirmed they should be closed up to prevent robbing and removed for cleaning as soon as possible.
Check for Varroa by looking at the tray under the brood box (assuming you have a Varroa floor) and work out a daily mite fall. If the daily mite fall is greater than 5 Varroa, you should act quickly and treat to reduce mite numbers. At this time of the year Apivar strips are the most appropriate, but only if you are sure you will not need to put supers on for six weeks.
For those beekeepers with solid floors, think about replacing them with clean floors at the end of March.
Once into April the task of beekeeping begins in earnest. Check that you have equipment prepared for the nectar flow and swarm prevention. Supers filled with drawn comb or foundation, preferably at least two for each colony. Spare frame filled brood boxes, floors, crown boards and roofs to perform ratification swarms. Remove mouse guards and fit appropriate entrance blocks. Keep a water supply nearby.
On a really warm, calm day make a full inspection of your hives. You are looking for brood at all stages and trying to spot the queen. If she isn’t marked/clipped or the workers have cleaned her up and the marking is not very visible, now is the time to re mark her with her year colour and maybe clip one wing. The relatively low number of bees in the colony should make the task of spotting the queen so much easier. Once found, marked and returned to the brood box, a queen excluder should be added above the brood box if you still have a super of stores on the hive. Check to see if any old comb needs to be replaced. Brood comb darkens over the years and now is a good time to replace old frames for new. You can clean off the old comb and spruce up the frames for reuse. “Use the Bailey method to remove old brood frames” Remove the mouse guard but leave the entrance block in place.
In warm spring weather, blossom from flowering trees may yield lots of early honey, Keep an eye open and be prepared to put on supers to harvest this bounty. Conversely if the weather is unkind, feeding may have to be continued with syrup.
May is the month when the colony really starts to expand and regular, weekly inspections are necessary as swarming becomes a real possibility. Lack of brood spacer and the formation of queen cups will give you early warning and you should have a plan to deal with this situation. Watch out for oilseed rape crops in the foraging range of your hive(s). The honey from the oil seed rape will crystallize rapidly in the frame and cannot be removed by the bees. The answer is to harvest it early.
Keep an empty super on top of the brood. The extra spacer to store honey allows more brood space in the brood box and lessens the chance of a swarm. As the colony numbers increase, the entrance block can be removed, allowing the bees easier access. Keep monitoring the varroa mite levels and treat as necessary. The mite can slip into the hive on the back of visiting drones and bees robbing other infected hives and the increasing population of brood in the colony is an ideal breeding ground. Colonies infested with varroa can appear completely normal, lulling you into a false sense of security.
When population levels of the mite build up, damage can occur suddenly and swiftly, it will rapidly damage and may even wipe out a colony and catch you by surprise. It certainly will reduce your honey crop if not treated. The failure to appreciate this fact is the main reason beekeepers lose colonies even after they know they have varroa. Check monitoring boards regularly, counting fallen mites after a seven day period and establishing a daily drop. If the daily drop is over 5, act immediately by treating the colony with one of the recognised methods for this time of year.
Remember May and June are the big swarming months so keep a close eye on your bees i.e. queen cups could be an indicator, worker/scouts searching in old hive equipment could also be an indication.
July and August are the main months for honey storage, so add extra supers as required. Remember to also monitor hives for swarming activity and disease.
By August, the nectar flow is over – unless your bees are on the heather – so remove supers and extract honey by the end of the month, leaving enough stores however for the brood box. Return extracted supers to the hive for cleaning.
Varroa treatments should now start (with your supers off) and you have a number of choices in this area. We at our apiaries have chosen to use Apivar – but this is only available from The Bee Vet (on line). Two strips to be placed in each brood box which must be removed after 6 weeks.
For those unsure about treating their bees, the Association can help members by treating their colonies and instructing the member for future treatments. Any member looking for advice, please contact the Association, use the Contact Form on the website, or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org to make arrangements for a visit when there is a good weather window.