Topical Tips – “Spring has sprung: your beekeeping season is about to begin” – by Malcolm Wilkie

If you drive down country roads at the moment you will see that the pussy willow is in flower. This is a great source of pollen for honeybees and they will collect that pollen in quantity. As a beekeeper I breathe a great sigh of relief once I see yellow pollen going into a hive in quantity. It means that my queen has come through the winter and that the colony is expanding. March is always a tense time because winter bees that have survived for over five months are having to raise brood: it is a crossover point for the bees and is stressful for them. If temperatures are not good, or if the weather is too wet, or if the beekeeper did not feed them properly last September this can adversely affect the colony at this time of year.

The $64 million question for each beekeeper, however,  is when do I put my super onto the bees. As with everything in beekeeping it all depends. If you have your bees in an ordinary national hive then you will be adding a super sooner rather than later : they are going to need the space. 

Otherwise one has to assess the size of the colony. If they are covering eight or nine frames of comb in the brood box, then it is a good idea to add a queen excluder and a super. If they need the super they will soon go upstairs into it.  If you have a very small colony, though, you need to wait otherwise the bees won’t expand outwards in the brood box. The difficulty for all of us is that bees naturally want to put more brood above the brood they already have. Why is this? It is simply because the warmth and heat from the brood below will help heat the brood above and the bees instinctively know this. The trouble is you have put a Queen excluder between the brood and the super and inadvertently you may find that the bees will feel congested because they can’t expand the brood upstairs. Perversely they don’t always seem to expand outwards if there is space above the brood. Come on you all know Beekeeping is never straightforward. 

A beginner will just have to accept that if they have a small colony they will have to wait until that colony has become big enough before they think about honey (in other words before adding that super). It is very frustrating because all of us want a spring honey crop. However it is only once one successfully can build up a colony over winter and that you have a large foraging force that you will be able to collect a spring honey crop. Not all my colonies collect me a spring honey crop! And certain strains of bee just do not build up quickly in the spring and are probably only going to give you a honey crop in July. Learn to work with the bees that you have.

The second $64 million question is when is it appropriate for me to open up the hive and examine the frames? Ideally it needs to be about 15°, a still day and bright sunshine. I myself will open up a hive quickly when it is only 13° as long as it feels warm, the hive is in the sunshine and the bees are flying strongly. Beekeepers who don’t work are at an advantage because they can choose their moment.

The following videos will give you some pause for thought

1. A nuc box last Sunday. Every beekeeper should overwinter a nuc of bees in a polystyrene nuc box. They will quickly expand and give you a summer honey crop. Notice the amount of pollen going in and the enthusiasm of the bees. There is evidently a queen and from the bees enthusiasm I know she is vigorous.
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2. A picture of what happens if you don’t get a super on early enough. These were very vigorous bees. If only I had taken a peek three weeks earlier I would have known they needed space from the number of bees above the crownboard. I could have popped on a super and Queen excluder without even going through the brood box! As a beginner I was always nervous about lifting the roof off. Not the case any longer. I enjoy watching the bees munch my fondant and pollen patty! 
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3. No reason really for this video except I’m trying to rival Rob Gore and his wonderful photographs.
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Malcolm Wilkie – 16th March 2021

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