In my experience, it’s important to constantly feed the bees during the first year (in Newfoundland), but it’s also important to stop feeding them at a certain point in the spring so they don’t swarm. When I find drone comb gunking up the bottom of the frames in the spring, that’s my cue that the colony could potentially swarm. Queens can’t mate without drones. That’s why the first swarms usually coincide with the flight of the first drones. I could be wrong about all of this, but from what I’ve seen with my bees, it’s true. A colony won’t swarm without drones.If the bees have two or three solid frames of honey in every box — enough to prevent them from starving — and drone comb is present, then I stop feeding. I don’t feed my bees if they have enough honey on their own anyway, and unless it’s a weak colony, I don’t usually feed past May 31st either because there’s usually enough natural nectar sources available by then (in my local climate), especially in the city of St. John’s that is heavily populated by maple trees. I also check my hives at least every two weeks until the end of June to make sure the queen has room to lay. Most beekeeping (beyond feeding) can be summed up with that one sentence: Make sure the queen has room to lay.
For any first-year beekeepers in Newfoundland (or a similar climate) wondering what they might find during their first hive inspection of the year (which usually falls somewhere between late April and mid-May), here’s a video of my first hive inspection in 2011 that shows a fairly healthy colony coming out of winter, one that allowed me to steal a boat load of honey from it later that summer (though I may have had to feed it for a few weeks to give it a boost; I don’t remember).
I found honey on the outside frames, some pollen mixed in and then capped and open brood spread out over five or six frames in the middle. I might have been concerned with one or two frames of brood (though queenright colonies with zero brood as late as May 15th isn’t unheard of) but five or six frames of brood during the first week of May is pretty good for my local climate. (None of my colonies are doing as well this year. They’re still recovering from The Attack of The Shrews.) The hive body underneath was more or less empty.
These days I’m usually much faster with my inspections, but overall the video demonstrates how I still inspect (and reverse) my hives every spring. I have a more detailed video in the works, but for now I’ll break it down like this (assuming we’re dealing with a 2-deep Langstroth hive and it’s a warm, windless sunny day somewhere between 11am and 2pm):
Hive inspections every two weeks aren’t always such a bad thing, especially for new beekeepers, because one of the best ways to learn what the bees are up to is to see what the bees are up to. (Collect that data!) I found an excuse to dig into my hives at least once a week during my first summer of beekeeping, and I learned more from my intrusiveness and observing everything up close and personal than I ever did from reading or watching the bees from a safe distance. Yes, there is a risk of disturbing the bees and killing the queen, but I was careful and gentle and made sure to put all the frames back the way I found them, and everything worked out fine.
Regular inspections also allowed me to remove comb and propolis that would have otherwise gunked up the frames and made future inspections messier, more difficult and perilous for the queen.
Messier — because comb connected between frames will often split open and scrape against honey in adjacent frames and spill honey all over the place. Drone comb, especially between brood boxes, is exceptionally gross when pulled apart.
Difficult — because frames that are bonded to the hive box with propolis don’t move. It requires careful maneuvering to pry out the frames with a hive tool — to snap off the propolis — and even then all the extraneous comb between the frames tends to squish bees and tear up honeycomb as well as brood comb along the way. Whereas frames that are cleaned up every two weeks can usually be pulled up with bare hands.
Perilous for the queen — because any comb between the frames or the brood boxes can easily trap and kill the queen (along with other bees) while the frames are being pulled out. (Some refer to this as rolling the queen.) Comb between the brood boxes leaves no space for the queen. If the queen is on that comb while a frame is slid back in, she’s dead.
I’ll try to update this post in the future with more detailed photos that illustrate what I’m talking about. For now, though, here’s a photo of a hive that I haven’t touched for almost three months.
Those frames are super-glued to the hive box with propolis and are held together by brace-comb as one big solid 10-frame block. Pulling those frames will be one seriously tangly experience (an experience I’m glad to have avoided during my first summer of beekeeping).
Here’s a video for brand new beekeepers who’ve seen orientation flights but didn’t know what they were looking at.
I usually notice orientation flights around 11:30am on hot summer days, but sometimes the heat doesn’t kick in until the afternoon — in the case of this video, 2:30 in the afternoon. Everything seems calm and normal and then within about five minutes the air in front of the hive fills with fuzzy young bees hovering and facing the direction of the hive. That’s your standard-issue orientation flight situation. Orientation flights can appear as massive, confused clouds of bees if the bees have been stuck inside the hive for a few days because of cold or wet weather. A swarm of bees, by the way, is about 10,000 time larger and it’s a whole other ballgame.
For more information on orientation flights than you’ll ever be able to process, I recommend reading the Arnia page on orientation flights.
P.S.: In the video I inaccurately refer to these as baby bees taking their first flights outside the hive even though I know it’s wrong. Orientation flights usually occur when the bees are about 20 days old — not babies — and have completed all their assigned duties inside the hive (cleaning, nursing and so on). In my mind, they’re still babies because they’re learning to fly, and it makes no difference to my beekeeping whether or not I think of them as baby bees or 20-day-old bees. But if you’re taking a test, you’ll get that question wrong if you call them baby bees.
SHORT VERSION: I was concerned when I saw a medium honey super suddenly crowded with bees. It turns that’s nothing to worry about.
LONG VERSION: I have one colony this year that isn’t in sad shape and might make some honey that I can eventually steal. The average high temperature for July where I live was 15°C (59°F), and that’s mostly with rain and fog. Honey bees that can make honey under such conditions are miracles workers. Yet I noticed bees in this one hive showing up in the honey super about a week ago and then today, just now, I found this above the honey super:
That’s a view of the bees through a screen at the bottom of an empty moisture quilt, essentially a screened inner cover and ventilation rim. Anyway, the bees are crowded up over the top bars in the honey super, pushing themselves into the screen of the empty moisture quilt. That’s a full blown cluster of bees, not just a few hundred workers showing interest in a honey super.