Beekeeping Year

A summary of the beekeeping year with typical tasks done each month in the Apiary and elsewhere. In reading this information you should take into account the local conditions at the time as the weather may vary a lot year on year and the behaviour of our bees is rarely as predictable as we might like.

January

A quiet month an the apiary, hopefully. Some beekeepers treat for varroa with Oxalic acid at this time of year, but in a mild winter the queen may already be laying by now so caution is advised.

A good time for reading-up on beekeeping, so why not check the library page for the list of books available to borrow from the Association.

February

As the days begin to get longer, colonies will be starting to build-up. The cluster temperature begins to rise and brood raising begins, if it hasn’t already. The presence of brood and increased activity in the nest mean that food consumption will increase and can rise to as much as 1lb stores/week.

February

For this reason starvation is a risk at this time of year, particularly if colonies began the winter with depleted stocks or if the winter has been warm, causing the bees to be active, so heft your hives on a regular basis and feed with fondant (or even better, the bees’ own honey) if needed.

It’s also worth checking the hive entrance periodically; the build-up of dead bees during the winter can cause the entrance to be blocked and the same can happen after a snow fall.

On mild days the bees should be flying – how do they look? are there any signs of dysentery? are there any inactive hives? (these may have died-out over the winter). You can tell a lot about the colony by observing your bees at the hive entrance.

March

The weather can vary enormously at this time of year. Sometimes spring is well underway by the end of March and sometimes there is still snow on the ground.

Typically the crocuses and hazel catkins will be out and on warmer days you’ll see the yellow and orange pollen being brought into the hive.

Once the frosts are over there is little chance of mice trying to get into the hive so you can remove your mouseguards as these may knock the pollen from the legs of the bees as they return from foraging.

The bees may be running out of stores this month, particularly if the weather has been mild and brood-rearing has started early. Hefting the hives at regular intervals will give an idea of the weight of stores left. Fondant may be fed if required.

If you haven’t done it already, now’s the time to make sure all your spare equipment is clean and ready for use and you have the capacity you need if you want to be doing splits or artificial swarms over the next couple of months.

You may be able to do your first inspection this month but wait until its warm enough to do so (shirtsleeves weather c.14 degrees). Instead, you can spend time watching the bees at the hive entrance.

April

With the weather improving and days getting longer the bees should be flying more frequently by now, although it may still not be warm enough yet for inspections to begin. It should be possible, however, to spot any failed colonies and at the very least block these-up so they can’t be entered by bees from other hives.

Even if it is too cool to open the hives this is a time when the floors may be cleaned, or clean floors swapped-in, making sure the debris of the winter is removed. This can also give useful clues as to the state of the colonies.

By the end of the month the dandelions should be flowering in many parts of the dale so be ready with supers and queen excluders as this is usually a very productive time. Lastly, don’t forget that swarming will be starting soon, if it hasn’t already, so its a good idea to have decided on your approach and have the necessary equipment ready in advance.

May

“A swarm of bees in May is worth a load of hay”

May is the peak month of the bees’ year with a wide range of flowers and blossoms. There should be long, hot days for foraging and for stimulating maximum egg laying by the queen. Give bees plenty of room by adding supers just ahead of the colony’s requirement. It is also the peak month for swarms.

No matter what management system you follow, you must have a plan for immediate action when swarming occurs, ie a complete prepared hive, a phone number for supporting help, etc.

A final word of warning, a prolongued period of cold, wet, non-flying weather can result in the colony quickly using all its food stores in feeding the developing brood. Be prepared to feed in these dire – but rare – circumstances.

June

Swarms, swarms, swarms! June is the month for swarms in our area. This is particularly so if colonies have built-up slowly in April and May due to cool damp weather. No matter what swarm control system is tried, some colonies will swarm and the beekeeper must be ready.

For WBKA members, anyone wanting a swarm should give their details to either Bob Hogson or Geoff Halsall – details in Combings. Anyone with a swarm looking for a home should also contact Bob or Geoff who will try to match offer with requirement.

Nectar flow should be good this month. Add another super some time before the existing super is fully occupied. This is to ensure that the bees have plenty of “roosting room” !

July

This month you should continue to check on signs of swarm preparations in your hives. Where hives have already swarmed you’ll need to make sure that new queens are laying and be ready to act if you find drone layers or laying workers, which may occur if for any reason new queens have failed to mate properly (for example if there has been a spell of bad weather).

The Balsam will be in flower along the river, so just keep an eye on how well your supers are filling-up. You may want to start thinking about making preparations for taking you bees to the heather next month, there is usually a Heather Apiary Meeting in August.

August

August heralds the beginning of the end of the beekeeping season. Early nectar flows from blossoms and spring flowers are over, the queen may be reducing egg-laying as she senses the shortening days and hopefully, swarming is over. Here in the north we buck the trend by having heather as a valuable source of late honey and this is supplemented by Rosebay Willow Herb, Blackberry, Himalayan Balsam and very late Ivy.

Eggs laid now and in September will produce the bees we expect to overwinter. Decide now which colonies you want to keep for next year. If in doubt, unite.

September

It is time to make sure your bees are ready for winter. Hives which were taken to the heather moors in August will be brought home and the heather honey extracted. Ideally all colonies should have enough honey stores to get through the winter, but if not there is still time to give additional feed. Once you have removed any honey for human consumption, you may treat for Varroa with Apiguard or similar.

When preparing colonies for winter the first decision is whether to winter on brood-and a-half, or just the single brood box. If deciding on brood-and a- half, remove the queen excluder and any 2nd or 3rd supers. For either decision a check should be made that there are 11 good deep frames.

Personally I have always wintered with the brood box alone – checking that there is a good stock of sealed food – supplemented as necessary – and being prepared to feed from mid February. The shallow box can be a nuisance next spring with the queen laying in both deep and shallow boxes and hiding from the beekeeper amongst 22 frames. With an Indian summer there could still be a useful flow of autumn nectar and pollen, but any supplementary feeding, (2 lbs sugar to 1 pint water), should be offered now. The aim is to allow the bees time to ripen and cap the stores. Complete any uniting, fit mouse guards and hope for that Indian Summer!

Lastly, the Honey Show is in November; if you are thinking about submitting any entries there will be full details of the classes and the all-important Honey Cake recipe in Combings, coming this month.

October

Its time to tuck the bees-up for winter, although they may still be foraging on Ivy and late Balsam in some areas. Thymol-based varroa treatments should be finished or coming to an end as they’re less effective as it gets cooler and its time to reduce hive entrances and get the mouseguards on before the frosts start. You also may want to add some insulation or screening to hives in more exposed locations. Those who are lucky enough to have heather honey will be pressing it from the combs. Its also time to prepare those honey and wax entries for the Honey Show.

November

The weather is now getting wetter, colder and, significantly, much more windy, so its a good time to double-check that all your hives are weathertight, stable and where necessary, roofs are weighted or strapped-down.

Having said that, in recent years November has occasionally been significantly warmer than usual. As a consequence many colonies were more active than they would normally have been at this time of year, but its unlikely that there would have been enough forage available to support this extra activity so they may have been eating into their winter stores. If this is the case, it may be possible to continue supplementary feeding into this month, but once the temperatures have begun falling to more normal levels extra feeds will be off the menu.

December

There is a need to keep checking your hives regularly through the winter months to make sure there has been no weather damage, especially after high winds, or damage caused by animals. We recently had a whole hive pushed off its’ slab by a sheep having a scratch.

A piece of 1 inch thick polystyrene sheet or other insulating material under roof will act as a quilt and help to conserve heat within the hive.

Throughout the winter you can monitor the level of stores in your hive by hefting. There is an article in the Q&A section of the December 2015 Combings which describes how to do this. If you haven’t hefted your hive yet this autumn, it may be a good time to do so, so that you will have a starting point with which to compare when you heft again as the winter progresses.

Finally, on Christmas Day, don’t forget to visit your bees and wish them a Merry Christmas.