The Beekeeping year

by John McCann


Late March to April is the time most of us will have some idea as to how many of our bees have come through the winter. This is the time of the year when we lose most bees. Just because you see bees flying from the entrance does not mean all is well! Your bees have not survived the winter until you see a hive with a good number of bees and brood.
Get into the habit of ‘hefting’ your hives. Very soon you will be able to estimate the level of stores. (Hefting – method of ‘lifting’ the hive, to judge the weight of the hive + bees + stores available. Done by tilting the hive from behind )

  1. Make sure you keep an eye on how much food your bees have. Breeding will start in earnest soon and if food is not available the stock will starve.
  2. Make sure you have emergency food available, just in case you come across problems within a stock of bees. (See below)
  3. As soon as the weather permits have a look in to see if your colony is queenright.You do not need to see the queen you just need to see brood at this stage.
  4. Record what you see and estimate the size of the colony.
  5. Pollen coming in at the entrance is a very good sign but it does not, on its own tell you that all is right.
  6. If you find a dead colony first seal it up and later determine the cause. Ask for help if you need it from other members but contact the Bee disease officer if you feel there is a problem.

Planning for the season ahead
Enrol yourself on one of the courses available and enter for one of the exams.
Decide what you want to do this year
Check out your equipment
Clean up and paint hives
Sterilize frames with acetic acid
Buy in any new equipment you need
Decide how you intend to deal with control of mites, swarming and colony increase.
Sort out your work box

New ideas for your workbox

Coloured drawing pins to identify which brood frames you have replaced.
Icing sugar kit- Sugar / A measure / A fine mesh frame or sieve / A wide paintbrush
Emergency ‘food’ for bees
Candy Recipe
2 x 1Kg bags (4.4lb) boiled in 1 pint of water to a temp of 117 degrees centigrade.
Beat with a spoon as it cools and thickens, then pour into a tray
mould lined with oiled paper (vegetable oil ONLY please!).
Bakers fondant can be used, it is just an expensive form of candy
A bag of sugar can be used if it is cold and you are desperate. Make small holes in the side of the bag and pour in a small amount of water. Invert the bag over the feedhole.
A jar feeder is very useful at this time of year. Commercial types work well but a few small holes in the lid of a honey jar do the same job.


Brood rearing will often restart this month and will place extra burden on the colonies winter reserves. If there is a suitably mild day, check quickly for remaining honey reserves and if necessary be prepared to feed sugar or candy.
With brood rearing commencing again, the mite load within the colony will start to increase so this is a good time, if you haven’t done so already, to check your mite drop. Heavy infestations will require a spring treatment of the colony.
In some areas the first of the spring bulbs are flowering so as the new seasons pollen loads return on workers, to allow them unrestricted access, any mouseguards fitted should be removed.
Whilst things are still reasonably quiet, make the most of the time to put together new frames and hives. Beginners, this will be covered on your beekeeping course but for reference see the pdf file below, Assembling Hives and Frames. As they say, anyone able to put together any IKEA flat pack furniture should be able to manage assembly of flat packed beekeeping equipment!
Assembling hives and frames


By now colonies should be showing signs of early spring activity. Queens should be laying patches of eggs in the warmth of the cluster and workers will be increasingly going on cleansing flights. On the milder days, workers may also be seen bringing in pollen from early flowering plants like snowdrops, crocuses and winter heaths.
Around the middle of the month, carpet squares should be put on top of the crownboard and the varroa trays should be inserted under open-mesh floors to minimize heat loss from the cluster. This will go some way to assisting the early brood rearing that should have begun.
Every three or four years, during a spell of cold weather, if the outside of the hives’ are dry, they can be given a coat of liquid insecticide-free preservative. Choose a cold, windy day when few, if any, bees are flying, BUT BE CAREFUL as most ‘safe’ products remain harmful until dry.

Regular checks of apiaries should be carried out to ensure that any surrounding fencing is stock-proof, no vandalism has taken place and there is no damage to the hives.
Each hive should be hefted to check on the quantity of food stores remaining. Check for the following signs at the hive entrance. There should be a considerable amount of fine wax particles from the uncapping of stores. If large pieces of wax are on the alighting board, you may have a mouse in residence! Spots of faeces may be evident on the front of the brood chamber. This can be caused by the bees’ over long confinement due to severe weather, therefore preventing cleansing (toilet) flights. It may also be dysentery caused by fermenting stores or Nosema disease. (Nosema is treatable, so if you see signs of dysentery, have your bees checked).

If the weather is mild enough and bees are flying freely, bringing in large pollen loads and you can detect warmth when placing the back of your hand against the crown board, then all should be well.
If there are fewer bees flying from one hive compared to others in the apiary or no flying bees at all, a quick check can be made by raising the crown board and having a peek inside.Hive ‘inserts’ should be checked for the presence of varroa, pending possible treatment early next month.Once the weather is good enough, each hive should be lifted off its respective mesh floor / floorboards without disturbing the brood chamber(s) or crown board, and given a clean floor for the new season. In order to conserve heat, an entrance block with a narrow entrance should then be put in.

Bees which are short of food must be given food, spring syrup fed using a contact feeder (see Bee Health)
*Miller or Ashforth feeders are unsuitable for early feeding because the bees will not go up over the cold ‘weir’ to reach the syrup*


This month bees will be collecting nectar and pollen from flowering currant, dandelion, willow, cherry, gorse and blackthorn, leading to rapid colony build-up. Continue to monitor the food supply and the mite drop on the hive inserts.

On the alighting board, or outside the hive, hard grey old pollen pellets the size of a cell may be seen. If crushed between the fingers they will break up and show layers. Sometimes a trace of colour might still be visible. The appearance of old pollen pellets is a good indication that the bees are expanding their brood nest.
Chalk Brood mummies may also be observed at the hive entrance. These do not crumble into layers, they are usually smaller and flatter than pollen pellets and are often recognizable as poorly developed pupae. Chalk brood can appear if bees have wintered in damp conditions and can be seen in nuclei which are short of bees. In other words, where the bees have been under stress. Some strains of bees are more prone to it than others. If widespread, chalk brood can hinder colony buildup.Apiguard encourages hygienic conditions within the hive and may reduce the occurrence of chalk brood. In severe cases the colony should be requeened from a different strain and any badly affected combs replaced with acetic acid sterilised combs.

If you need to treat for varroa in spring, it should be carried out before the hives have honey supers added. Do not use Apiguard or any other thymol-based treatment prior to the honey flow as its odour can remain in honey for some time.

Towards the end of April or when the sun is warm and there is little wind, a first inspection can be made. The hive entrance should be gently smoked, then wait a few minutes before opening the hive in order to allow time for the smoke to take effect. Gently lever up the crown board and give it a sharp shake above the open hive to dislodge the queen back into the brood chamber IF she has been driven onto the crown board by the smoke.This inspection should be swift so that you do not chill the brood. The first thing I do at this first inspection is to find the queen. She is more easily spotted at this time because there are fewer bees in the colony and as there are no, or few, drones, she is the largest bee. She is likely to be found on a frame containing eggs in the top brood chamber. She might not be the queen which you are expecting to find. The queen that you saw during your last autumn inspection may have been marked and/or clipped, but a younger unmarked queen may now be in the hive, the old one having been superseded in late autumn.

April is the best time of the year to mark the queen. Use a ‘press-on’ type queen cage to mark her. When marking, ensure that you allow the paint to reach the hard surface of the queen’s thorax. If you only paint the thorax hairs, the paint will very soon wear off. Once marked carefully lift the cage a small amount but keep the queen in the cage until the paint has dried.
When looking for a queen, concentrate solely on that task. When found, and marked, you can leave her in the cage until you have carried out other tasks, so that you know her whereabouts.
The remainder of the brood chamber/s can now be checked quickly. It is important that you refresh your memory on the appearance of healthy, sealed and unsealed brood so that any abnormality can be given a closer examination. Check that there are nice areas of eggs and larvae also slabs of sealed brood containing few ‘missed’ cells. Continue to check for signs of disease.
Continue to monitor varroa numbers by checking the hive inserts and/or uncapping drone brood with an uncapping fork. Be careful not to kill too much drone brood or you may seriously reduce the drone gene-pool which will be available for queen mating later in the season.

Check that the colony has enough food to last it until your next visit.Now is the chance to remove misshapen combs or combs clogged with old hard pollen and replace them with drawn combs, if you have them! If not, only replace one or at the most two with foundation. The renewal of three or four brood combs per year helps to cut down disease. Finally, don’t forget to release the queen before closing the hive. Do not split the brood nest or you will give the colony a severe setback. Let the brood expand naturally.Now carefully close up the hive and put an old carpet over the crown board. You need to keep the brood as warm as possible at this time of year.

Swarming will be upon us by next month so you should now work out what you are going to do when you see your first queen cells.
It is no good to wait until you first find them you must have a plan to act upon when you do!

MAY – welcomes swarm season!

A swarm of bees in May
Is worth a load of hay;
A swarm of bees in June
Is worth a silver spoon;
A swarm of bees in July
Is not worth a fly.

May brings the start of the spring honey flow from sources such as oilseed rape, sycamore, horse chestnut, bluebell, top fruit, etc. and in order to derive maximum benefit from these the colonies must be strong. Indeed, the beekeeper’s skill is in keeping colonies as strong as possible from May until August. We have no way of predicting what the weather is going to be like or how long good foraging conditions will last, therefore you must endeavor to maintain your colonies as strong as possible so that they can make the most of any flow. This means that you must deter or delay swarm preparations at least until the spring flow is over and exercise effective control over swarming if or when it comes.

Never open a hive unless you have a reason for doing so and have a plan worked out in advance for what you are going to do and have what equipment you may require at hand. In early May the colonies should be checked in order to see that the queen has not suffered any ill effects. There is no need to find the queen, just check for the presence of patches of eggs. There should now be drones in the hive. Bees work best when they have some drones, but you don’t want too many. Incidentally, drones do not become fertile until they are twelve to thirteen days old. Check that the queen has plenty of space in which to lay. A queen excluder and the first honey super are put on top. This super should be of drawn comb if you have it so that when the flow starts, honey will be stored in the super and not allowed to clog up the space in the brood chamber.

After a week of the honey flow more breeding and super room should be provided and as the season progresses, the colonies are checked weekly to see that there is enough super room and that swarming preparations are not being made. Make sure that there is enough super room for storage of honey and for the bees to ‘hang nectar out to ripen’ in spare cells.
If queen cell cups, with nothing in them are found, this is quite normal and it is a waste of time removing them. If the cups are being extended and contain an egg, or more important, a fed larva, then you must assume that swarming will take place soon after the queen cells are sealed on the ninth day after the egg was laid. Be careful cutting out queen cells make sure there are eggs present or you could render the stock queenless. If cells are removed they will probably be rebuilt the following week and you must remedy the situation using your chosen method of swarm control.
The queen cells which were found first of all will contain larvae properly fed from birth therefore they will produce the best queens and should be used if you intend to breed from that stock.
An artificial swarm is probably the best way to proceed if you are a beginner.

If you are lucky enough to catch a swarm hive it on foundation and feed it well. A swarm is one of the best ways of obtaining good drawn out comb from your bees! Good Luck!


(Any additional comments – e-mail Paul Hitchiner)

As August takes over, we see the first sign of the bees preparing for Winter. As the flowering period for the Summer plants draws to a close, so the need for a large population of foraging bees is diminishing. Soon there will be little for them to collect, and even if there was, the weather would be unsuitable for flight.

Some hives may be out of honey so look out for this and feed with sugar water or honey to prevent starvation.

The queen, prompted by the food fed to her by the workers, reduces the rate of laying, and the brood nest begins to contract. There are still some useful bee plants around. Blackberry will continue to provide nectar well into September.

The bees will start to remove the drones, starving them to make them weak.

For beekeepers looking for an extension to the honey season, this can be found on the heather. For most beekeepers, this means moving the bees. For Liverpool and Wirral beekeepers, a heather site can be found at Llandegla Heather Moors. The strongest hives are selected, the roof removed, the crown board replaced by a travelling screen (a mesh screen which fits over the top of the hive to provide adequate ventilation and temperature control), then in the evening, when all flying bees have returned to the hive, the entrances can be sealed, and the hives loaded up and moved to their new home. When the site is reached the hives are put in place, and the entrances opened. When flying begins the following day, the bees quickly relocate to their new home, where they will stay until the heather finishes flowering (after 4-6 weeks).

Meanwhile, back at the home apiary, as we reach the end of August it is time to remove the honey harvest. This consists of the surplus honey, which is stored in the supers.That which the bees have stored in their brood chamber, is not touched. That belongs to the bees.

In order to take the surplus honey, the bees must be cleared from the supers. To do this, a clearer board is placed between the supers and the brood chamber, which allows the bees to pass downwards through it, but will not allow their re-entry. In this way, the supers of honey can be taken away for extraction, and the bees will remain with the hive. A clearer board may not be necessary if the frame is full and sealed. Just brushing off the bees with a bee brush or goose wing will remove the few bees left on the frame. Some beekeepers replace a full frame with a frame that has been extracted earlier for the bees to clean, and take out the remaining honey. I place the full frame in an empty super on a flat barrow, and cover it with a board, for transportation to remove the honey.

When you have removed the honey, feed the bees with 10 litres of 50/50 water/sugar solution placed on the hive just before it gets dark, or late afternoon; so reducing robbing.

I boil up a full kettle of water and pour it over 2 Kg of sugar, and put that into a feeder, but some beekeepers pour the water into the sugar, still in the bag. this solidifies into a candy, which is placed, with the hole at the bottom over the top board.

Wasps can be a danger to beehives robbing any that are not well defended. Help the bees by reducing the hive entrance to 8 mm by 75 mm. Wasps can be captured in a glass jar( with a 6 mm hole in the screw on lid) one third filled with a weak jam/preserve in water. The solution may need to be changed weekly to remove dead wasps. Leave the jar on top of one of the hives.