When I last reported in, we had one hive that was still hanging on (but not strong)…well, Elly stopped by and determined that we had lost the last hive too. She and her fearless volunteer, Alex, then ventured out the next day, on March 25th to clean the dead out and prepare the hive for a new population of bees when the time is right. Upon opening the lid, five bees immediately flew into her hair and our quick-thinking hero, Alex, quickly capped it back up! Not completely dead, obviously. They needed to regroup. Later that day, Elly and I went out better prepared to scope out the situation (veils and smoke at the ready).
What we found was a handful of bees (literally, like 12) and A QUEEN. She was gorgeous, but certainly this little population would perish in the next couple of days if we didn’t act. Cold weather was coming again and there were not enough bees to keep warm and certainly not enough to help the queen care for brood to repopulate the hive. Elly knew that the way to save them was to remove them from the giant (3-story) hive and get a little 5-frame nuc box. Create them a new smaller home with honey stores and add worker bees and brood from one of Elly’s hives at home. This would give them a soon-to-emerge workforce that could begin to forage and care for new eggs that the queen would lay.
Whether your bees survive the winter or they don’t, NOW WHAT? seems to be the BIG question for beekeepers in the spring. For those losing their hives, the questions are: What went wrong? Do I want to continue or get out of the beekeeping business? Do I buy nucs or packages of bees to repopulate my hives? For those whose hives survive, the questions become: What on earth do I do with all of these bees and how do I keep them from swarming? Do I want more hives in my apiary? Is my queen getting old and will I need to replace her this season?
All of these questions determine your next steps in this beekeeping adventure.
The hives at Whiting Forest are no exception. In our scenario, at Dow Gardens, we are lucky to have an experienced beekeeper to whom the answers are more obvious than for they are for me (with my 2 seasons-worth of limited experience).
To properly answer these questions, one must first evaluate your goals and resources for beekeeping.
Is your primary goal to ‘get honey’ this season? Or is your goal to build up more hives in your apiary? Or is it to have strong hives to build out equipment (draw comb) and be super prepared for the next winter? These answers are not mutually exclusive, but you have to know your priorities, because that will determine your courses of action beginning NOW.
Ultimately a hive that survived the winter at even a moderate strength will prepare to swarm at some time during the upcoming season (this is the reproduction of a super organism and a natural process). A prepared beekeeper knows what to look for (high population, swarm cells and backfilling of resources into the brood chamber). A wise beekeeper creates a PLAN to deal with this BEFORE these signs begin to show.
Our goals at Dow Gardens are more educational in nature and creating sound decisions for the populations we have. Honey is actually a bonus. The Whiting Forest plan is to allow this tiny hive of bees to grow in strength, then install them into a one-story hive, just as if we purchased a nuc from a vendor. Until the weather is consistently warmer, we won’t dig into this tender hive for any further evaluations to minimize risk to the queen and the growing colony. Because they are so small, we will be adding a bit of pollen patty today. The pollen provides protein to help the queen/hive rear more brood.
We will install a package next week as part of our Beekeeping Series class. This new group of bees will work to build their colony on new equipment so that our students can see what it will take for their new colonies to grow. This hive could very well produce no harvestable honey because their energy and resources will be put to work building comb and bees.
For Whiting Forest a decision has to be made…stick with only 2 hives this year or attempt for a third one as we have had in the past few years. We are strategizing on how to make that happen while keeping in mind that buying bees can get expensive $130-$185 to repopulate a hive.
My personal hives came out of the winter with one particularly strong. I have renamed this hive, The Survivors…they survived the flood (floating like a bobber) and they survived my first winter as a beekeeper. I do not necessarily want additional hives to care for …two is the right number for me at this time.. I also don’t have a lot of extra equipment to make a split from this hive…I was really losing sleep about what to do with this colony to not ‘get it wrong’. I am so glad to have my beekeeping network (I like to call it the Hive Mind). Based on my goals, we made a plan.
My goals are to keep my queen genetics, but to maybe have them create their own ‘new queen’ so that I don’t go into the winter with an old one. I want to create a split to hopefully prevent this hive from swarming without taking out too much steam by cutting the population in half. My final goal is to have honey to sell this year. I had a bit last year and it was fantastic. If I sell more honey, I can justify purchasing more equipment and maybe grow a little…remember this is a hobby and can be an expensive one.
The solution for this hive will be to use some equipment from Dow Gardens (a deep box with 10 drawn frames). I will add this as a THIRD brood box on top of this hive. This will give the queen more space to lay, delay any sort of swarming activity and in a few weeks, we will make an in-hive split. We will remove the top box full of bees and brood, find the queen and make sure to take her with this new single-story hive. This new hive will remain in the apiary while the original hive attempts to requeen themselves. If successful, we will move this new hive to Whiting Forest as our third colony – let’s hope this works!