Beekeeping is about weather watching. On January 30th, the mercury on the front porch hit 65 degrees. The honeybees broke cluster and flew madly about the farm--taking cleansing flights and gathering water. The weather service was predicting another warm day on the 31st. This was the break in the weather that I had been waiting for.
Our spring bloom is still 2 months away, but this was a great opportunity to check on the bees. I had not opened a hive since last fall, when I’d inspected and prepared them for winter.
I was careful not to disturb the brood chamber where the bees cluster in cold weather and where the queen was beginning to lay brood, but I did manipulate the boxes. It has been my habit to run 2 deep chambers topped by one shallow super of honey all year. In all hives, I found that the bees had moved up into the 2nd deep brood chamber. I momentarily set aside the top shallow super of honey while I reversed the 2 deep chambers, so that the bees would have room to expand upward this spring. (If a hive still has bees in both chambers, they should not be reversed. Reversing will split the cluster area and any brood that the queen has laid--spreading it out and making it difficult for the bees to keep it warm. If temperatures dip quickly, as they are likely to this time of year, the brood will be susceptible to chilling.)
I found two hives that had been so-so in the fall had died out, although the hive still had plenty of honey. A handful of dead bees clustered together in each hive pointed to queen failure. She must have died and the numbers gradually dwindled down. I tore these hives down to salvage equipment and comb, and I froze the combs of honey to use in feeding nucs this spring.
Two other hives were weak and would not make it til spring. I found the queen in the weakest one, killed her, and then combined the occupied brood chambers from each hive with a sheet of newspaper between them. By the time the bees chewed through the paper, the queenless bees would accept the others as their sisters and the queen as their own. The other hives all looked strong and still had good honey stores.
Finally, I performed a manipulation called “checkerboarding.” The purpose is to prevent swarming later in the season by breaking up the honey dome above the brood chamber and thus giving the bees room to expand upward. It also is supposed to increase honey yields. The idea is espoused by Walt Wright and a full explanation can be found by searching him or by searching “checkerboarding” at Beesource.com.
In my setup, the honey dome is that top super of honey. In most of the hives, this super was still pretty full of honey. After I’d reversed the deep chambers, I put this super back in place but removed every other frame of honey. I refilled these slots with empty drawn comb that I’d saved, frozen, from last year. Above this, I added a second super of drawn comb interspersed with the frames of honey that I’d removed from the first super--in a checkerboard pattern. The key to this is having the drawn comb on hand.
This is the 4th year that I’ve performed this manipulation, and with my healthy, survivor hives, I’ve had very good results so far: hardly any swarming and much greater honey yields. This is a controversial topic, but so far my results have been good and I will continue to do it.
I also love this method because I’m a lazy beekeeper. I won’t have to go through my hives and cut out queen cells in an effort to prevent swarming later--usually to no avail anyway, and I won’t have to manipulate the boxes again until next year. All I have to do now is wait for the spring bloom to begin and add supers for the bees to fill with honey!
These late winter hive manipulations now done, I will go back to my weather watching. I will be waiting for signs that the nectar flow has begun. In middle Tennessee, that occurs sometime in April--unless the cranes have heralded an earlier spring? After that, I hope to watch the bees fill super after super with honey! Yes, beekeeping is about weather watching, but it is also about hope!