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Quarterly Beekeeping Newsletter - Spring 2024


Honeybees on spring crocus, photo by Grai St. Clair Rice

Spring Abundance

By mid-April, most over-wintered colonies will be entering a state of high hive activity, matched by the abundance of forage, unless dampened by cold, spring rains. It is a time of intense dynamics and change can take many forms. The nursery swells in size to embrace the laying capacity of a fertile queen at the height of her abilities.  Comb is being feverishly built by the plethora of young bees fueled by the spring nectar flow. The Drones have ripened to sexual maturity, and the bee yard feels joyous on a sunny day.


Spring brood in the honeybee nursery, photo by Grai St. Clair Rice

The swarm impulse is never far from center of gravity.

The swarm impulse is never far from the center of gravity, as queens work the combs of the brood nest, and worker bees have queen cups at the ready along the edges.  Swarming is a natural instinct of healthy colonies to reproduce.


It is best to think through your spring plans long before it arrives, and do the necessary preparations.  Time flies, and this year it seems many of my colonies were brooding extremely early with the variable winter weather.


What’s your plan?

Some beekeepers hope to expand their apiaries each year, or make up for winter losses, by creating “manual swarms” and raising queens.   Some prefer to manipulate their hives for maximum honey production, with the use of equipment such as a Snelgrove Board.   Other beekeepers contemplate letting nature take its course.


Please keep in mind that the standard wisdom is that only about 20% of uncaptured swarms establish well enough to survive the following winter.  In an urban environment, the odds are likely less. Have equipment ready for splits.  There are many options available, including deep 10-frame hive bodies configured to hold two 4-frame colonies, or three 3-frame colonies.  5-frame nuc boxes can be used to rehouse a reigning queen or daughter queen cells.  This is when saved great brood-comb frames will be most appreciated.

Hives ready for spring spilts, photo by Grai St. Clair Rice

Bait Hives

Installing a bait hive, or two, should be part of any spring maintenance, at a fair distance from your existing colonies.  A piece of old brood comb is the best lure, and I always add a fresh coat of propolis stain to the inside walls. 


Make sure the size of the bait hive can fit a large swarm, as a nuc box won't fit the needs of the primary swarm. That's the one you definitely want to catch.





 

Spring Beekeeping Tasks

Switch Out Old Comb

April is a great time to rotate out some of the old brood comb, before it has new brood.

Protect Hives Against Robbing

Set Out Bait Hives

Create Small Colonies

Set New Goals for Your Bee Season

Improve Apiary Notes

Casually Watch Your Hives

 

Comb is Built in Times of Abundance

April is the time to rotate out some of the old dark comb frames, especially in the brood region. If the colony is populous enough there will be a fair amount of worker bees of wax-generating age.  Harness this good energy, so the queen can lay on some fresh comb.  

worker bee generating wax from her wax glands.  Photo: Helga Heilmann / The Buzz About Bees
Wax flakes. Photo: Helga Heilmann / The Buzz About Bees

Wax Flakes. Photo: Helga Heilmann / The Buzz About Bees

Worker bees between the ages of 12 to 18 days old are at the height of their wax generating capabilities, with their wax glands primed for production by an abundance of nectar.  This means providing ample empty frames for them to work on. 


Consider shuffling frames around without breaking the brood nest by adding space, including empty worker sized comb frames, in the center of the hive adjacent to and above the brood.  This will be readily welcomed as these frames are instantly within their nest environment needing to be filled. 


Foundationless deep frame, photo by Grai St. Clair Rice



If offering foundationless frames make sure the “empty” frames are between some already built out comb.  Consider placing two or three “empty” frames together in a super or brood box surrounded by existing frames. Comb is built in a group activity with a mass of bees and transformed by the bees' heat, thus in nature they construct multiple combs at the same time. This is not the same as checker-boarding.



As the bee season progresses into serious warmth and the main flow, consider moving working honey boxes up and placing the new box below.  This is called “undersupering.”   It is wise to mark a box that has been undersupered, so you can visually recognize it and check that the super gets properly built and filled during the season.


In the spring, always “super” early on strong colonies.  The bees are best able to build comb at this time, even if some frames never get filled with honey in the same year.  Good comb is a beekeepers most valuable asset for years to come. 


“Curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.” — Walt Disney

Remember to Stay Curious

Each bee season, consider challenging yourself with a specific goal for your attention while working with, or observing, bees.  As your beekeeping practice evolves, these simple yearly goals will always advance your knowledge and appreciation.


By focusing attention, sensory experience is tuned in and more deeply informed by the activity of the colony.  Intently observing individual bees can inspire and develop a broader interest in the biology of honeybees, which lays the ground work for greater understanding of the creatures under your care, as well as how they interact with the surrounding environment.


tropholaxis at hive entrance, photo by Grai St. Clair Rice

Attention Setting Goals

Observing interactions at the entrance, including noting the colors of the pollen entering the hive or how the bees communicate, may seem a simple observational goal, however it will lead to questions which will lead to a quest to answer them, and further observations.


What are the different sounds and smells of the hive, both inside and out?  How do these change in different circumstances?


What are they doing with their feet and legs? Each pair of legs have specific unique tasks, reflected in their anatomical structures.


Consider marking and pulling honey frames over the season to investigate the floral sources your bees have accessed.  Train your nose and tongue to more fully understand the qualities of honey.


Use Your Phone

Your cell phone is always at hand; use it. Consider photographing frames pulled during an inspection, and then study the details on your computer.  What do you see that went unperceived out in the beeyard?


Being a beekeeper provides us each broad opportunities to expand our experiences and our breadth of knowledge.  We can have fun too, as curiosity leads us down unexpected paths.


The Joys of Awe

Curiosity can stir the intellect and feed our sense of wonder.  Standing in the midst of a cloud of swarming bees and feeling the electricity...we perceive the world in a new light.


One of the many gifts of an intimate, informed, reverential beekeeping practice is an enthralling sensation of awe while interacting with bees.  This experience may occur in small moments or large, and….. They are always moments to be cherished.


 

Honeybee Nutrition

Honeybees are a prime example of “You Are What You Eat.”  Selective royal jelly feeding renders a fertile egg either a worker or a queen.  Drone larva are fed a distinct concoction of amino acids, proteins, lipids etc for their development in the nursery. 


Honeybee brood.  Photo by Alex Wild / University of Texas https://www.alexanderwild.com/Insects/Honey-Bees/i-J45q2Ng/A
Photo: Alex Wild / University of Texas

Shifts in the quantity and type of feeding and consumption occur over a bee’s lifespan, save for the queen who is fed a rich recipe of royal jelly for her entirety. 


Malnutrition had been a red flag during the height of the Colony Collapse Disorder media maelstrom, and likely still affects colonies in monocrop environments.  Every season in every bee yard, lack of proper nutrition, specifically during the developmental stages in the brood nest or queen cells, can lead to disease and colony demise.


As beekeepers, it is extremely important for us to have a better understanding of honeybee nutrition, and how we can help when proper forage is lacking.


This winter, the Honey Bee Health Coalition published its comprehensive Honey Bee Nutrition Guide.


 

Encouraging the Propolis Envelop

Propolis is an active component of a colony’s social immunity within the nest environment. This tree and plant resin is collected by honeybees, and with the addition of mandibular secretions and elements of beeswax, is put into service by the bees for its antibacterial/antifungal properties.  It is used to coat the insides of cavities, fortify honeycomb, entomb pathogens or dead mice, and aid the homeostasis of the super-organism.


Sure, it can feel like a nuisance to beekeepers when it glues frames in place, sticks to our hive tools and stains our hands and clothes, but please also feel enlightened by the research and actions to improve hive health. Dr. Michael Simone-Finstrom and Dr. Marla Spivak have been instrumental in advancing our understanding of this product of the hive, and how beekeepers can “give” it back to the bees, or encourage it’s collection, instead of a long history of breeding out propolis collection.  


Their research was originally published in 2009 and 2010 from work done at the University of Minnesota where Simone-Finstrom was completing his PhD under Spivak.  


Propolis in honeybee hive.  Photo: Michael Simone-Finstrom
Photo: Michael Simone-Finstrom

Simone-Finstrom has continued his investigations on propolis, including what an over-abundance of propolis collection may tell us about viral loads within a colony.  Spivak at the MN Bee Research Lab continues to research propolis and hygienic behavior, and has incorporated the important topic of social immunity into her oeuvre for public presentations.


Dr. Spivak has encouraged Premier Bee Products to develop her knowledge of rough hewn interiors for optimal propolis application into a product called “The Propola Hive,” available in 10-frame deep hive bodies.  Check out their description at premierbeeproducts.com/propola.


Union Bee Company is a CT based company which also produces rough-hewn woodenware called "Propobody," available in 10-frame deeps and mediums. www.unionbeecompany.com/propobodies


Rough hewn interior walls of The Propola Hive.  Photo: Grai Rice
Propola Hive interior walls

Beyond buying new equipment, a simple suggestion for beekeepers is to create a propolis stain with collected chunk raw propolis and 70% isopropyl alcohol (50/50). With gloves and a soft rag, rub onto the inside walls of hive bodies being put into use, either new or returned from storage, to encourage heathy bees.










 

Embrace the New Beekeeping Season 

It’s time to get out there in the apiary with the bees! Both bees and beekeepers have all been working around the ups and downs of the late winter/early spring weather.  Now, finally, spring has burst through with all its glory.


Hands-on Beekeeping at the CBA Bee Yard

CBA offers hands-on experiences each month throughout the season, at the CBA Boulder Knoll Bee Yard, in Cheshire, CT.  The next Bee Yard event takes place on Saturday, April 27 covering Varroa Management, Swarm Signs and Top Bar Hive Inspection. The detailed event schedule is posted on the CBA website https://www.ctbees.org/workshops.  Registration is required.


This year, there is also be a separate series for CBA Youth ages 6-13 https://www.ctbees.org/post/cba-youth-beekeeping-workshops, with the next event taking place on Sunday, May 5th.


These are a great opportunities to improve your apiary skills, and address the concepts and realities of seasonal maintenance.  Additionally, the fun of getting together with fellow beekeepers should not be underestimated.  So, get out there and talk with other beekeepers.


A variety of hive styles are in place, including the newly constructed transparent hive CBA President Bill Hesbach fashioned out of discarded Covid safety barriers.  A package of bees was installed in early April. This unique “observation hive” allows the colony to be monitored, and studied, as they establish their comb and grow their brood nest over the season.  A protective sleeve will be in place over the hive when it's not being actively worked with.


CBA YouTube Channel

If you can not make it to the Cheshire Bee Yard you can subscribe through the YouTube CBA landing page for future event videos - Subscribe here >>


Some past CBA Bee Yard experiences can be viewed on the CBA YouTube channel.

 

 

The Broader Beekeeping Community

Each summer, the Eastern Apiculture Society Conference takes place in a different eastern US state or Canadian Province, during the downtime before the fall work begins.


Eastern Apicultural Society (EAS) Summer Conference 2024

eastern apicultural society logo

This year’s conference will be in Turf Valley, Maryland August 4-9.  Especially when the location is not too far afield, it’s an enlightening and fun time, well worth the experience.  https://easternapiculture.org/conference/


The main 3-day conference includes morning keynote speakers and afternoon breakout sessions.  An optional two-day “short-course,” with different experiential tracts, is available on the Monday and Tuesday prior to the main event.


There are evening social events planned, and special tours to the USDA’s Beltsville Bee Lab.  The EAS Honey Show is a popular event to enter your prized honey, beeswax, cooking, mead, photography, wax art and/or beekeeping gadgets.


Attending bee conferences is a fun way to gain knowledge and interact with fellow beekeepers.  You may see old bee friends and make new bee friends, plus hear the latest in bee research to broaden your mind.


CBA President Bill Hesbach is currently the Connecticut EAS Director, along with being a presenter in the main conference.  He will also be certifying the exams for this year’s new EAS Master Beekeeper applicants.


The lodging costs are the largest expense, thus if you can share a room, stay with a friend/relative nearby or choose a camping option the experience is more economically manageable.



Stylized sketch graphic of a honey bee

Enjoy the newness of the beekeeping season!

Place a comfortable seat near your hives to enjoy the sight of sunlight on their wings, the color of the pollen on their legs and the amazing energy of spring.


 

Citations & Links

Honey Bee Nutrition Guide - Honey Bee Health Coalition. (2024, January 31). Honey Bee Health Coalition. https://honeybeehealthcoalition.org/nutritionguide/


Michael Simone-Finstrom and Marla Spivak Apidologie, Propolis and bee health: the natural history and significance of resin use by honey bees, 41 3 (2010) 295-311 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1051/apido/2010016


CBA Bee Yard Listings https://www.ctbees.org/workshops




Eastern Apiculture Society Conference 2024 https://easternapiculture.org/conference/

 

About the Author:

Grai St. Clair Rice
Grai St. Clair Rice

Grai St. Clair Rice

Grai has been a beekeeping educator since 2006. She teaches beekeeping classes, coaches beekeepers, does public presentations, writes about Honeybees and gardening for pollinators, and consults on landscape plantings.


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