Spring is the second busiest time of the year for beekeepers. The weather starts to warm up and the bee hives start to get more active. This is also a time where beekeepers are figuring out whether their hives made it through the winter. The harsh reality is that there is always some loss. When you lose a hive, you have to order a new package of bees to replace the lost colony. Whether the hive makes it or not you approach the spring with one goal in mind. You want the queen bee to think there is plenty of food available for foraging, so she starts to lay eggs.
Why? Because in the winter the queen does not lay any eggs. The bees are just focused on keeping warm and making it to spring. The sooner she starts laying eggs in the Spring the sooner your hive starts rebuilding with young bees who can go out foraging. So even if the trees aren’t flowering yet you can trick the queen into believing spring is here by putting a sugar syrup feeder on the hive and adding a protein patty inside the hive. These mimic the nectar and pollen the bees get from flowers. This is a really important step because once the queen starts laying eggs the hive population starts to grow again. The queen can lay up to 2000 eggs per day but won’t do this until there are enough bees in the hive to forage for food and take care of the larvae. By mimicking an early Spring, you jump start this process so when the first big nectar flow starts with the first flowering trees you have a lot more bees in the hive who can take advantage of it. This is also one of those hard choices beekeepers make by watching the weather. You can’t start this in January or February because the syrup will freeze, and the bees will not break cluster. You watch the weather and look for long stretches above freezing with more daytime highs in the fifties which typically occurs in April but can happen as early as mid-March. Once this happens you have more days where the bees break cluster and access the syrup feeder and protein patty so even if there are no flowering plants, the queen thinks there is plenty of food and will start to lay eggs.
Unfortunately, beekeepers lose hives every year. Some hives are just too weak to make it through the winter even with plenty of stored food. Others fall prey to parasites or sickness. This is why most beekeepers go out even in winter to take a quick peek in the hives. Because if you lose a hive you need to order a new package of bees. There are a multitude of companies that raise bees for sale and they ship when the bees and queens are ready which means you may get them anytime between early April or late May. Just in case you are wondering how they are shipped here is a picture.
The queen is inside that ball of bees in a little cage that looks like this
To put them in the hive you take the queen cage, pull out the wooden plug that traps her in the cage and replace it with a small marshmallow. Then you put her between two frames in the hive, spray the bees with a little sugar syrup so they don’t fly around and then pour them onto the hive. See below.
If you look closely you can see the protein patty at the bottom left of the picture on top of the hive. Once the bees are poured on they will start crawling down into the hive. Some will still fly around, and you certainly want your bee suit on.
After that you put the feeder on, add sugar syrup and put the cover back on to protect the bees.
With this type of feeder, the bees don’t have to leave the hive. They can just crawl up from inside and sip some sugar syrup and go right back in.
Over the next few days the bees will eat the marshmallow and the queen will be released. This is also a really important step. The queens are typically raised separately from the bees in the package, so you have to protect her in the cage while the bees learn to accept her. This is also a way for the beekeeper to make sure they have a live queen in the hive. If you were to just add her unprotected into the bees, they would likely kill her. During their trip in the shipping package the queen is putting out pheromones to speed up acceptance. By putting her in the hive in her cage she can continue this process and you can make sure you actually have a live queen in the hive. The marshmallow is just a way to add a couple of days more for the queen and the bees to get to know each other.
You keep feeding the bees until the trees start flowering. Once that happens the bees are good to go, and you move on to summer bee management which will be the topic of the next post.