Beekeeping is an experiment. We try something one year, take notes, and repeat what works. We love it! This spring, we are going to do a couple things that have worked well in the past, add in a few new things, take more notes, and try our hardest to keep our little honey bees happy and healthy.
As winter comes to an end but before things really get blooming, the bees have made their way through some or most of their winter stores of honey, so we start to feed them. In the past, we have used sugar syrup to give them a boost in carbohydrates. However, this year we are feeding the bees old honey stores, which we saved, double-bagged, and froze for this purpose whenever we lost a previous colony.
Feeding the bees honey seems preferable because it is the bees’ natural “whole food”. Honey has a lower pH (pH of about 4) than sugar water (pH of about 6), and Michael Bush states in The Practical Beekeeper that many brood diseases and Nosema cannot reproduce at the more acidic pH of honey. The growth of many microorganisms is inhibited by a lower pH, so this makes perfect sense (and is also the reason the kitchen counter disinfectant is effective)! Also, feeding honey, which contains pollen and other components that the bees need, helps keep the colony’s overall health strong.
To feed back frames, we pulled seven saved frames of honey and scratched them up a bit with a fork to entice the bees. We put three frames containing only drawn wax in the center of a medium box to give the queen room to lay, and we spread the frames of honey on either side of these three. This box packed full of goodness was added as the hive’s bottom box (see drawing below).
Also in early spring, we rotate boxes so that the top box is empty and the bees have room to move up, which helps to prevent crowding and discourages swarming. On a warm day, we crack open the hive and determine where the bees are, which boxes are empty, and which boxes have stores. Boxes can be moved around but when the hive is reassembled, we are sure to always put the cluster back as it was found. We stack the hive bodies so that the stores are on the bottom, bees and brood are in the middle, and a box of empty frames (with drawn wax, if available) is on top (see drawing below).
Swarming is the process a colony uses to naturally split and a portion of worker bees, drones, and the old queen leave the colony to establish a new one. Before the hive casts the swarm, they raise a new queen using the old queen’s eggs. Once the swarm leaves, the young queen will mate and start her rule. Swarming is how bee colonies reproduce and pass along their genes to the next generation. I was fortunate enough to witness a swarm early one spring morning and the bees, buzzing, and chaos were all amazing to experience.
Removing frames and creating a new colony (a split) from them ourselves also helps to prevent swarming by reducing the bee population. Last year, we removed three frames of brood and nurse bees from a strong hive and put the frames into a medium box with frames of stored honey. We did not remove the queen. The split successfully raised their own queen and survived this past winter. We heavily fed the split after we made it last May and in the fall.
Our 2015 experiment will be to slowly revert our bees back to a regressed cell size (4.7 mm – 5.1 mm). These things are cute already, but even smaller, fuzzy bees? I know, it’s almost too much to handle.
Michael Bush keeps smaller bees and believes that the smaller cells and shorter incubation period of bees helps to keep the varroa mite population down. We are still debating on the best method for making this transition; it will take some time and will require some planning and work. As of right now, we are thinking of slowly replacing our black plastic foundation with empty frames. This will allow the bees to start building cells at the size they desire, though it does take a couple passes before they stabilize within the range of sizes. As the bees fill in the empty frames with drawn wax, we will slowly continue replacing the old frames by removing the ones with black foundation.
This is our plan for Spring 2015. We also understand that there is a large body of formal work and informal experience in these areas, and that methods of keeping bees can be a hot topic! We love hearing how others are successful, so if you are keeping bees naturally and want to share, please do!
- The Practical Beekeeper: Beekeeping Naturally by Michael Bush
- The Beekeeper’s Handbook (Fourth Edition) by Diana Sammataro and Alphonse Avitabile