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. (See Late Fall Hive Inspection.)
On the first day of the warmup, I visited my 3 apiaries and each of their hives. 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 but one hive, I found that the bees had moved up into the 2nd deep brood chamber. I momentarily set asked 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. One hive had bees in both chambers, so I did not reverse this hive. Reversing would have split the cluster area and any brood that the queen had 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 could have been susceptible to chilling.
I was happy to see the late winter vigor of most of the hives. The bees formed a thick mass over the top frames of the brood boxes and were up in the top shallows getting honey. I did find one dead hive in each apiary, but I was not surprised. Last year was a bad year for me and most everyone else in beekeeping. These hives had never completely recovered and had not produced any honey in 2013. In each of them, I found only a fistful of bees, their heads stuck inside empty honey cells. The cluster had been too small to survive the winter, and nearby, stronger hives had robbed them out on warm days. The few remaining bees had starved and frozen. I could tell they’d been robbed out by the massive amount of chewed up wax discarded on the bottom boards. When the bees in a hive eat their own honey, they do it neatly and systematically, as the bees were doing on this day. When a hive is robbed, the robbers swarm in and tear the wax away, leaving ragged edges and chewed-up litter behind.
Two other hives that had been so-so in the fall were doing quite well, but they both were low on honey stores. I doubted they’d make it the 2 months until the nectar flow began without starving. Fortunately, I had partial frames of honey in the freezer that I’d stored in the fall. I would thaw and add a couple to each hive the the next day. If I hadn’t had these frozen frames, I could have traded a few empty frames with full ones from nearby hives, as these were still stocked well with capped honey.
Finally, I performed a manipulation called “checkerboarding” that I’ve been experimenting with the past few years. The gist of the whole thing 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 full of honey. After I’d reversed the deep chambers, I replaced this super 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 3rd 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. Let me say though that this is a controversial topic and that I have not had enough experience with it yet to wholeheartedly recommend it. But so far, my results are very promising.
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!
On the second day of the warmup, I observed the bees bringing in tan-yellow pollen! Probably elm and/or maple pollen. Amazing how quickly nature springs to life when the chill is gone even for a day! The appearance of pollen coming into the hives is a good sign that the queen has begun spring brood laying. The workers gather pollen as protein to feed the larvae. According to Mr. Wright, this is perfect time for checkerboarding. I’ve found a great site to stay informed about what plants are producing pollen and when. It’s really for allergy sufferers, but I think it’s a great resource for beekeepers as well: www.pollen.com. You can type in your zip code and get a list of what plants are currently producing pollen in your area.
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. 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.