How are your bees? Hate that question these days. This beekeeper is holding on by her fingernails, and while hopeful, also knows any season could be her last.
The bees are in trouble.
That said, I look forward to February here in Middle Tennessee--the beginning of a new year of bee management. February may well be the most important month in a beekeeper's year these days. Why? In February, the maple and elm trees begin to produce pollen. In February, the bees begin to collect this tree pollen because the queen resumes laying eggs for new bees and the new bee larvae need this protein to survive. In February, we usually have a spat of days in which the weather hovers around 70 degrees and beekeepers can look in on their bees. In February, bees are already preparing to swarm come spring, so beekeepers need to be thinking about how to control these swarms so that they get to keep their bees. Thus, the importance of February hive management.
I begin February preparations in January. These days I am busy cleaning up old frames, scraping and burning old wax, and rewiring frames to swap out for old ones. I need to have my equipment ready for the February hive inspection.
I am old school, and my hive configuration going into winter is 2 deep boxes, topped by one shallow of honey. (I know that the trend now is to run all mediums and that's cool. Principles will still apply.) Usually the bees have all moved up from the bottom deep hive into the top deep by late winter. If the bottom hive is empty during my February inspection, I reverse them--so that the bottom deep contains the cluster of bees and the top deep is empty. This gives the bees room to work and move up as the season progresses.
Word of caution: If the bees have not moved up into the second deep (or medium) but the cluster is situated between the two boxes--leave them be. Don't break up the cluster. Wait a bit.
Another critical part of February management is to break up the honey dome, if you have one. I leave a shallow of honey on top of the two deeps every fall. If this shallow is still full of honey at the end of winter, it will make the bees think that they are congested and need more room--they will prepare to swarm. So I will "checkerboard" this honey dome--pull out every other full frame of honey and insert an empty one. The bees think they have room to fill and work to do. The extra frames of honey can be frozen to feed back to new hives in the spring.
These hive manipulations will help your bees have more room to work and will keep them at home longer, BUT a healthy, strong hive is meant to swarm--it's how bees perpetuate themselves. It's a good thing and means you have healthy bees and hives if they want to swarm. BUT of course, we want to keep those bees at home and provide them the best chance of survival so, think ahead.
When the spring flow of nectar begins be prepared to artificially "swarm" your hives so that you can keep your bees and even increase your apiary.
To come--creating nucleus hives when the spring nectar flow begins.