May in Your Apiary

May Blossom
(Crataegus Monogynus)

After yet another ‘unusual’ April, with a warm start and cool end and below average rainfall throughout, we may need to excuse our bees for not quite behaving as anticipated. Although the cold daytime breezes and off/on sunshine may not hold back the expansion activities of strong colonies, weaker colonies could still be struggling.

If your colonies were not so strong going into winter. Requeening, uniting or wholesale replacement may well be the order of the day.  

So, expect your surviving stronger colonies to be doing quite well thank you and bursting at the seams … unless you are already on top of their management. Whilst any weaker colonies may be struggling … particular after the more recent dip in temperatures.

Don’t be Caught Out

If you are not already, pay particular attention to swarming in May. This month is usually the month in the beekeeping year when activity accelerates very quickly, perhaps doubly so this May. If you are not well prepared, you will be caught out!

The first rape crops and fruit blossom should be in evidence, and when warm enough, available storage space will be being filled with nectar… competing with space the Queen will need for laying.

Strong colonies will have expanded significantly during April whilst weaker colonies could still be struggling.  Brace yourselves for a busy ‘swarm season’.

What’s Happening?

New beekeepers are often surprised by the rapid rate of colony development and consequent swarming in Spring and are unable to respond…. due to lack of preparation and readily available equipment……but, for most it’s still not too late!

Frame of Sealed Brood – Drone Brood at Top & Bottom of Frame

Larger colonies will already have started to prepare for swarming by producing their first drones in quantity. Drones are essential for mating with virgin queens.
The image (on right) shows sealed, drone brood at top and bottom of frame and individual drone brood cells scattered amongst normal, worker, sealed brood.
Experienced beekeepers will already be prepared for swarming by ensuring they have available:

  1. At least 2 (best to have 3) supers per hive, complete with frames of foundation or, drawn comb (best). It may already be too late if you still need to order these. The purpose of supering is not just to provide space for nectar collection but, also to provide space for the rapidly increasing colony population. Hive congestion is one of the triggers for swarming.
  2. For each pair of hives, have a spare brood box with a floor, frames of either foundation and/or drawn comb, a dummy board, crown board and roof. This ensures the minimum spare equipment is immediately available to carry out swarm prevention (eg, The Nucleus Method of Swarm Control or, The Pagden Method of Swarm Control), once unsealed queen cells are identified. Make sure your equipment is all compatible & interchangeable in your apiary…ie. the same type and size.

But it’s not just about preventing loss of bees due to swarming! Experienced beekeepers will also have made preparations to be on the receiving end of a swarm, looking for a new home, by putting out a “bait hive”.

How Many Supers Do You Have?

Keep ahead of your colony’s space requirements for both the growing colony and also honey storage by adding supers. If your bees find crops of oil seed rape you can almost watch a super being filled. From then on be guided by the weather, if it is good, you must have more supers ready to place on when the last super is half filled. Learn more about “supering” HERE
If you are near a rape seed crop, it’s wise to take full or, almost full supers of rape honey, off for extraction as soon as possible, as this honey is high in glucose and will very soon crystallise and go solid in the comb. Extracting crystallised or, “set” honey from the comb requires the use of a water heated, stainless steel, extractor for controlled melting the set honey.
If you have a different approach to Spring management, why not share this in the Comment box below? (Note: The text box expands to accommodate all your narrative!)

Deformed Wing Virus

Deformed Wing Virus

This is the time of year when inspections may show bees with deformed wing virus (DFW) indicating high levels of varroa mites….see image to left.
At this time of the year there are 4 options for treatment of high varroa infestations.
– Icing Sugar Dusting of bees on all brood frames. Please note this may only provide short term relief unless continued weekly during the active season. Some beekeepers argue that continuous dusting throughout the active season is too intrusive for the well-being of the colony.
– Queen Trapping: See the National Bee Unit guide to Queen_Trapping
– Drone Brood Removal from the hive & destruction, before brood emergence.

To-Do Checklist

Have spare equipment ready such as: two supers per hive (one with foundation); a spare brood box with comb; and a nucleus box with at least four combs. Read up on swarm management and prepare your plans for the approach that you will follow and ensure you have the necessary equipment ready.

  • If you have not already done so, replace all your hives with a clean floor, or thoroughly clean and disinfect the existing floor.
  • At the start of the month it is also advisable to change the brood chamber for a clean one with fresh frames where possible.
  • Scrape/brush wax from the queen excluder, and remove burr comb from the top of the frames.
  • To makes inspection easier, place a dummy board in every brood box; and check your frames are orientated the ‘warm way’.
  • Insert a varroa board under your floor and check the varroa drop. Count the number of varroa mites, and use a calculator such as that provided by DEFRA (BeeBase) click this link Varroa Calculator to help determine your treatment plan.
  • Insert a super frame in the brood box to provide a ‘Drone Trap’ as part of your varroa management programme.
  • Undertake a Bailey frame change or Shook Swarm to replace old comb. (As a minimum you should replace four frames in the brood chamber with frames of foundation every year, but many beekeepers recommend you change all your brood comb every two years.)
  • Mark your queens if you have not already done this – so you can find her if / when the colony prepares to swarm.
  • Check every seven days for queen cells. If a hive with a good queen starts queen cells you can use them to raise queens. 
  • Ensure that you have the necessary equipment to undertake your chosen method of swarm management; such as a nucleus box or spare hive complete with brood box / frames, cover board, and roof.
  • Also ensure that you clearly understand how to undertake your chosen method of swarm management – seek guidance from an experienced beekeeper if necessary. (See the May 2016 edition of BeeNews for an explanation of the law relating to swarms and their collection.)
  • If you want to attract a swarm to replace a lost colony, place a nucleus hive (with mainly foundation) as a bait hive for swarms. If you notice bees investigating the bait hive check your hives for queen cells, as the bees may be looking for a new home prior to swarming.
  • If you placed a super on the hive in April and it’s half full of bees, well done … now add another complete with either foundation in the frames, or preferably drawn comb.
  • Check on the status of any rape crops nearby. If and when your bees forage on rape seed, as soon as the rape flowers fade and the yellow disappears, take off all sealed honey and extract it immediately, otherwise the honey will go solid.

Continue to keep detailed records for every hive.


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