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Keeping Bees in May

May in the Tillamook Apiary

May is the start of a terribly busy time in the apiary. You are only going into your hives every two weeks but there’s a lot to think about and problems crop up for sure. There is an almost overwhelming amount of info in this write up.  If you are a new beekeeper, print this off and read it slowly. Discuss it with other beekeepers. When going through your hive, write up your concerns with pictures, if possible, and put them on the beekeeper’s forum on the website.

Here’s your to do list:       

1.    Call another beekeeper or two to come go through your hives with you. You will learn from each other. One person will see things that the other misses. One can take notes.

2.   Prevent Swarming.  If you have an overwintered hive, you must do something to prevent swarming. Assuming you don’t have any queen cells, here are some of your options:

a.    Do a walk away split. (Divide the two deep box colony in half being sure there are eggs and larva in both. The box without the queen will make one. Move the stronger box to a new location.)

b.   Do a “Brad split.” (Shake all the bees from the top brood box into the bottom. Move several frames with larva and capped brood to the top box. Put on queen excluder. Put the top box back on.  Nurse bees will immediately fill the top box. Buy a caged queen, insert her in the top box. Set up the top box with all the necessary additions to make a complete hive.  Move it to a new location at least for a few weeks.)

c.    Make a five frame NUCs from your overwintered hive. Give them a caged queen. Don’t expect any honey from this colony this year.  Feed them to help them grow faster. (If you do have a colony with swarm cells, you can move one of those frames with queen cells to your new nuc.)

d.   Move some frames of capped brood, pollen and honey to weaker hives and replace them with undrawn comb. Your goal is to equalize the colonies but if a colony is VERY weak don’t do this option.  See weak hive option in the Hive Inspections section below.

3.   Feeding. We don’t usually need to feed in May unless you have a nuc, you have undrawn comb, or the weather is persistently rainy. Use sugar water 1:1. Note that sugar water in the hive at this time of the year causes mold to grow on the upper cover and sometimes water in the bottom board.  The old-timers used to put a nickel on each corner of the top box before adding the outer cover.  This allows for air circulation. Do something for ventilation.

4.   Hive Inspections. Before you go into your hives know your goal.  Try to keep the hive inspection to twenty minutes. We do it on sunny days so that half the bees will be out foraging.

a.    Use smoke. Get a good fire in the bottom. Feed it to the kindling, then your smoker fuel of choice. Pine needles, wood pellets, rolled up burlap sacks, straw are good choices.  Remember to pump every few minutes to stoke the fire. If the fire goes out, move away, and get it going again unless your bees are very, very gentle.

b.   The bees join the frames in one box with the frames in the box below. It’s called burr comb, and they usually raise brood in it. You need to twist the top box to break the connection between the upper and lower frames. If you don’t, the frames in the bottom box will come up as you lift the top box. You will make a mess and make the bees angry. To avoid this twist the top box to break the seal before lifting.  This is hard to do by yourself because the bottom box still stays with the top box. Best if one person holds the bottom box still while the other twists. There will be exposed larva. No worries.  The bees will clean it up.  They even eat the larva.

c.    While we are talking about burr comb, some people clean all the burr comb off the top of the frames. Some don’t. The bees are only going to make it again immediately so why make them go through that work unless it is necessary?

d.   If you have a nuc you simply want to know that the queen is laying. You do not need to find her.  Just find young larva and you know she was there four or five days ago. You can check the middle frames to view the laying pattern.

e.   If the hive is strong you will want to look for queen cells or queen cups. Queen cups are not a problem unless there is royal jelly in them. That’s the beginning of a queen cell and that is a problem.  If none of the cells are closed over, you can.

                    i.    remove ALL queen cups and cells.  If you miss one, they will swarm.

                    ii.    use frames with queen cells and some frames of open and capped brood to start a new colony.

                    iii.    Remember the differences when queen cells or cups appear: A queen less situation (the bees are trying to raise a new queen), a pre swarming event (half of the hive is reading to swarm), and a supercedure event where the bees are intending to replace an old or poor performing queen, (not a totally queen less situation).  Destroying queen cells/cups during a supercedure event may not be in the bee’s best interest unless you are already in the process of installing a new queen.  Just eliminating queen cells alone is poor swarm control. 

f.    If you have a very weak colony with only two or three frames of bees and little brood, kill the queen and merge these frames in with a moderately sized colony. “They” say not to merge two weak colonies together. It doesn’t help. Use the newspaper to perform the merge. The stronger colony is on the bottom. Put a layer of newspaper on the frames. Cut a slit or two into it. Put the queenless weak colony on top. They will eat through the paper and become friends. Be sure you close up the weak hive the night before the merge so that all the foragers are locked in.

g.   If the colony is medium size or the brood pattern is spotty evaluate carefully. If you find queen cells, don’t destroy them. These are either supersedure cells or emergency queen cells. Let nature take its course or merge them with another colony as discussed above.   Learn to recognize normal brood patterns.  Roughly estimate the number of cells with eggs present.  There should be 2 times as many cells with larvae and 4 times as many cells with sealed brood.

h.   You found larva and capped brood, but did you find nectar or honey?  What about pollen?

i.     Look for drone production which is a prelude to swarm season.

5.   If you have done a split and are letting the bees raise their own queen do not go into the colony for three to four weeks. It takes 16 days to make a queen, five more before she mates and five more before she starts laying. The exception to this is if there are queen cells on more than one frame and you want to use them someplace else.

6.   Check your bottom boards if they are in.  If they are not in, put them in for about two days and then look for varroa. Do this every few weeks.  Varroa found? Treat. Check out to learn about your options. They have great videos. It’s actually time to take your bottom boards out. 

7.   Colonies have personalities.  Some are extremely gentle. Some are defensive.  Part of that is due to the genetics of the queen. Some of it comes from how you treated the hive the last time you were in there. If you dropped a frame or were rough with them, they remember.  Sometimes, although rarely, bees are actually aggressive. Some use the words “overly defensive” but let’s just call it as we see it: aggressive. If you can’t be out in your yard enjoying yourself without a bee coming up to you, it’s time to do something about it.  “They” say you can requeen, but it could take six weeks for the old bees to die off.  You don’t want to be a prisoner to your bees. One option is to move your colony to a distant site and start a nuc with a new queen.

8.   You will be adding supers in June.  Get two boxes of frames waxed and ready for each hive.    Add supers when you think it is appropriate for your apiary and location.  It is not uncommon to add supers in early May and can be utilized through mid-August in “normal” years.  Consider there may be a reduction in honey flows due to dearth’s in later summer.  Adding supers also adds space to a hive and thus helps in swarm control.

9.   Yellow jackets are flying.  Do what you can to get rid of them.

10.     Consider planting some flowers.  Check out the foraging section of the website.  Bachelor Buttons, zinnias, asters, and nasturtiums are always a safe bet.

11. Attending bee meetings. Second Saturday of the month; 11:30 meet and greet; 12:00 meeting.  Check the website for the location.

12.     We beekeepers spend a lot of time thinking should I do this, or should I do that? It’s usually not clear and sometimes impossible for us to know. Hindsight is 20/20. Don’t be hard on yourself.

13.     Sit and watch your bees.  Just enjoy them. Be in awe of them.  Let them give you new insights into “the bigger picture” of life, what’s important and what’s not.

14.     Good swarm controls utilizes all of these methods: Reverse deep boxes, give bees more room by adding boxes with empty frames on top, removing some open and sealed brood and bees to create new NUCs with bought queens or cut out sealed queen cells (if queen rearing season is upon you), split your strong hives, replace some filled resource frames with empty foundation frames in a checkerboard fashion (not within the brood chamber) to create more space within the existing hive boxes, avoid honey bound brood nests where bees start storing nectar within the brood pattern (a sure impulse for bees to swarm), and replace queens after 2 years of service as hives with queens 2 years old or under will not swarm as often as hives with older queens.

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