What happens in honey bee colonies in spring, and how can beekeepers support healthy colony buildup?

As the days lengthen, temperatures rise, and nature awakens, beekeepers eagerly anticipate the arrival of spring—a pivotal time for both hives and beekeepers. After a winter hiatus from hive inspections, typically spanning October or November to February, the end of this period marks a critical juncture for colonies reliant on their stored food reserves. The transition from winter to spring is a moment of vulnerability, where uncontrolled diseases can jeopardize colony viability.

Beekeepers commence inspection visits as soon as temperature conditions permit. These initial assessments aim to ensure all is well within the hive, confirming the presence of sufficient food reserves, detecting signs of illness, and assessing the overall vitality of the colony. A successful spring start hinges on meticulous preparation in the preceding fall, ensuring a robust foundation that withstands the challenges of winter.

Recent climate shifts, such as shorter spring and autumn seasons with hot, dry summers in regions like the Mediterranean, necessitate a well-prepared approach for beekeepers. Understanding the specificities of the local climate and flowering calendars becomes integral to the production strategy. For example, for the pollination of stone fruit trees such as Prunus spp or the production of rosemary honey or any other nectar that is of interest to the beekeeper. Strategic actions taken well in advance of flowering can enhance hive vigor and productivity.

Key actions for beekeepers during spring preparation include:

1. Health Status Check:
  • Inspect hive entrance, ground, and surroundings for anomalies such as accumulated mortality, trembling bees, or blackish diarrhea spots.
  • Examine brood boxes for larval and capped cell conditions to check there is no abnormality such as sunken, blackish, holey opercula, or a perceptible abnormal odor.
  • Renew wax to eliminate harbor organic remains that contain potential infectious elements.
2. Starting or Stimulus Feeding:
  • Supply liquid feed to stimulate breeding in advance of natural nectar availability.
  • Consider that from the egg to the birth of a worker takes around 21 days and another three weeks to turn the worker into a forager, therefore, we need a minimum of 6 weeks in advance to stimulate laying.
  • Syrups can be heavy concentrated (1 sugar: 1 water) or light (1 sugar: 2 water), fructose or glucose can be mixed with water or even honey and water.
  • Ensure protein needs are met with pollen bags or protein substitutes from the second or third week of stimulation.
  • When this stimulation is provided, we must accept that blooming may fail or be delayed for climatological reasons and those hives, in that case, will be dependent on food to survive until honeydew.
3. Matching the Apiary:
  • Address variability among colonies in the apiary.
  • Strive for homogeneity to simplify hive management. It is advisable to have a certain homogeneity in the apiary, this way the work is simplified since each apiary is arranged as a unit.
  • Consider designating support hives for breeding stock or queen replacement.
4. Merging Hives:
  • Merge colonies with lower populations to create a viable hive.
  • Mix odors to minimize aggression during merging.
  • It is better to have one viable hive than two or three one step away from collapsing.
5. Requeening:
  • Emphasize the importance of young queens for enhanced colony results.
  • Undertake queen renewal by selecting desirable genetic traits such as hygiene, productivity, and good temper.
  • Seek trusted breeders for replacement queens if not breeding them in-house.

Renewing queens is a crucial task, as young queens generally contribute to more populated, hygienic, and resilient colonies, ultimately boosting productivity. By strategically addressing these spring activities, beekeepers can fortify their colonies for a successful and productive season.