Even in the depths of winter, beekeepers are thinking about spring when their hives will become active again. Spring is an exciting time for bees as they transition from overwintering hives to full size colonies, but they may need some help along the way.
First and foremost, an overwintered hive is operating with limited resources. Before Summer Solstice, the increase in hours of daylight should have a noticeably positive effect on each hive. Forager bees have more time to look for pollen, nectar, water, and propolis as flowers start to bloom and vegetation comes back to life.
In the early part of a new year, Master Beekeepers Earl and Carol Hoffman start to prepare for the spring thaw. They keep a checklist based on years of experience, observations, and analysis. Every colony is different and dynamic. Early spring is the time to determine the health of the colony and gauge its potential to reach full size.
Scattered or Irregular Brood Pattern
There can be multiple reasons for this, including:
The queen is not performing at her full potential due to pathogens or poor mating
A shortage of young, healthy nurse bees could negatively impact brood larvae
If nightly temperatures drop, thermal regulating the cluster and brood is challenging
The hive lacks the resources to create an abundance of sexually mature drones
Brood nest combs are pollen bound or honey bound, with no clean cells for eggs
Pests and disease are obvious – small hive beetles, Varroa mites, Chalkbrood, Foulbrood, Nosema
Pollen and/or Nectar Dearth
A dearth is a starvation condition due to limited floral resources in spring. Consider:
An overwintered hive may be lacking a strong field force of foragers as adult workers shift from working in the hive to foraging
The colony is small (juvenile) and struggling to raise more workers
Limited floral resources in the spring
Field foragers have died from agricultural chemicals
Again, pests and disease are obvious – small hive beetles, Varroa mites, Chalkbrood, Foulbrood, Nosema
These factors can cause bees to become aggressive and overprotective as they fight to turn the hive around.
Ways to Encourage an Overwintered Hive to Grow
A honeybee hive is either growing or decaying. Once you can determine which direction your hive is headed, you can take non-intrusive actions to help it survive.
Learn more about brood nests with this helpful resource, The Structure of the Brood Nest: What is a Healthy Brood Pattern?
Monitor hives by tipping them slightly forward to gauge their mass and weight
Feed either bee feed syrup or a pollen substitute patty as needed
Add a full frame of capped brood from a healthy hive to a juvenile hive
Verify that the queen has room for eggs and that open clean brood comb is available
Add or remove supers as needed
Perform inspections for disease
Wash mites and determine what the hive’s mite levels are
Treat for mites in spring, summer, and fall
Apply a probiotic every month to promote a balanced gut, which optimizes digestion and nutrition, and improves immunity
Consider re-queening hives that continue to struggle
If a hive becomes a boomer hive, strong and making honey, leave it alone. By definition, it is thriving! The stages a hive could experience, from sick to healthy, from nucleus to full hive – are always on a spectrum and never black and white. Don’t forget that hives are dynamic and multi-faceted. Observe your hives to determine what care they may need.