August | Beehive Management

Spring hive development

Hopefully your hives have come through the winter period successfully as a result of your following appropriate winter management practices and checking the hives intermittently to assess the need for any supplementary feeding by “lifting” them from the rear.

Proper hive management in early spring (September / October) is critical for maximizing success for the forthcoming season.

Your hives now should be very carefully assessed in relation to the factors listed below.

First inspection after winter

This should only be carried out when it is a relatively warm day, there is little wind and foraging bees are flying.  Opening the hive when it is too cold, letting much of the hive warmth escape, and “breaking up” the bee cluster inside the hive as you remove frames for inspection, will cause stress to the bees.  It may also result in a significant setback to brood development and a faster rate of use of the remaining food stores, as the house bees consume more food to reheat the hive. Use of a partial cover over the top of the hive as you carry out an inspection, will result in less heat loss.

Stores of honey and pollen

At the beginning of springtime food stores in the hive are at their lowest level. Foraging bees from the hive will have become increasingly active, consuming more of the food stores for energy. With increasing amounts of pollen and nectar being brought into the hive, there will be a sudden surge in laying by the queen, resulting in significant brood development. One comb of honey, plus pollen stores, is necessary for one comb of brood to successfully develop.

Further depletion of the scarce food resources occur at this time as the newly emerged young bees are not yet able to forage, but require feeding.

Combined, the sudden growth of hive numbers, plus inadequate supplies of food, may result in an apparently strongly developing hive to suddenly becoming significantly depleted in numbers, as the bees die from lack of food. This is referred to as “spring dwindle.” Careful checking of the available food stores can avert this problem.

Supplementary feeding by use of sugar syrup (see June  “In the Hive”); or  shifting the hive to a location where adequate nectar flow is available, or taking a “spare” frame of honey from one hive and transferring it to one that is in need of food, are all viable options. If the latter process is used, extreme care must be taken to ensure you are not transferring disease from one hive to another!

The Queen and Brood

It is essential to check as early as possible in spring that the hive has a fertile and vigorous queen. This can be assessed by observing the laying pattern established. If there is a uniform pattern of eggs, larvae and sealed brood, the queen is performing up to expectation and should be retained. There is no need to actually sight the queen.

Workers on combIf eggs appear to be on the side, rather on the bottom of the cell, in the middle, this indicates an old / failing queen. Similarly, if there are an abnormal number of drone cells evident (raised bullet shaped capping) the queen has lost / is losing her fertility and the hive should be united with another. It is not often that there will be sufficient brood to enable the colony to survive if the queen is a drone layer, even if a new young queen is introduced.

If the brood laying is scattered (as below) this may be an indication of an aging / failing queen, or the presence of disease.

Scattered Brood

Presence of diseases

It is vital to check for any signs of disease early in spring. A very slow or negligible build up in brood numbers at this time may be an indicator of the presence of AFB or Nosema. Both of these may result in the complete loss of a hive.

a) AFB – A virulent, destructive and notifiable disease. Whilst difficult to detect in the early stages, detection off this disease is important to prevent its spread to other hives which will also succumb to the disease! It may be found in both weak and strong hives!!

Symptoms of AFB in the Brood.

AFB diseased larvae and pupae always lie stretched out on their backs on the lower wall of their cells, from the back of the cell (the mid-rib of the comb) to the cell opening.  If the cell is likened to a clock-face, the diseased individuals will be positioned at the bottom of the face between the figures 5 and 7.

The caps of cells containing diseased larvae or pupae may be sunken, concave, dark and at times greasy-looking.  Some caps may be perforated and other caps may be totally removed.

Potential AFB Cell

The match stick test method of diagnosing AFB is very effective.  – To do this insert a matchstick into the moist, decaying remains of a dead larva may be which may then be slowly withdrawn from the cell. The remains will stretch approx. 25 mm or more.

Matchstick Test for AFB

The Livestock Disease Control Act 1994 requires that anyone who knows or suspects that AFB is present in his or her apiary, must notify a DEPI apiary officer within 12 hour.

b) Nosema – A microscopic organism which lives in the bee gut. Most readily evidenced by spotting of excreta on combs and inside hive walls. This can lead to further spread of the infection. Nosema may also significantly weaken bees such they cannot fly, and may be seen in crawling on the ground in front of the hive, and attempting to fly. Usually they die some distance away from the hive. Although this problem can significantly deplete a hive, improvement in the weather may rapidly assist a colony to recover.

Nosema may also contribute to “spring dwindle”. – An “unexplained loss of numbers in the hive, or an apparent failure of a hive to develop as rapidly in springtime when one may expect otherwise!

Spring expansion of the hive

In late August as the weather becomes milder, temperatures begin to exceed 16 degrees, pollen starts to become abundant and some nectar is available, a hive will show a significant increase in activity with many worker bees evident flying from, and returning laden to the hive

These factors combine to stimulate the queen to rapidly increase her rate of laying. Whilst a “full depth’ frame has approx. 6500 cells, a queen will utilize only about 4500 of these for laying. (The remainder being used for pollen and honey storage for the brood food.). The queen can lay up to 1,500 / 2,000 eggs per day, thus may fill one frame in 2 – 3 days. In the 21 days it takes the worker larvae to mature and hatch, the queen may have used up all available cell space in an eight frame brood box.

It is critical to ensure over the these months that the queen has adequate laying room or she may well decide to leave the hive with a swarm, seriously hindering ones chances for a strong colony and honey  collection season. Regular checking of the hive, at least every 12 days is essential to ensure there is adequate laying room for the queen, and to detect and remove any developing queen cells (which forewarn of swarming).

Comb replacement

The queen is much more stimulated to use fresh, clean frames of foundation. Therefore

at this time of the year one should remove any old, dirty, or damaged frames from the brood box. These can be moved to the super for honey storage if required, or removed from the hive completely, cleaned and recycled.

When adding new frames of foundation always place them to the outside of existing frames of brood. Never separate existing frames of brood as this makes if much more difficult for the nurse / house bees to maintain the warmth necessary for the larvae to develop.

When to add a super

Determining when to add a super to an existing single brood box is dependent on many variable factors. In essence it should be done when six or more of the frames in the brood box are covered in bees and brood, or if when you lift the lid off a hive the tops of the frames are all covered with bees.

Remove two or more of the outside frames from the brood box and place into the centre of the super you are adding on. This encourages otherwise reluctant bees to go into the top box.  Replace the frames removed from the brood box with fresh foundation or drawn comb.

Next month – Swarming:

  • Causes
  • Warning signs
  • Prevention
  • Collection of swarms

Reference: Australian Beekeeping Guide (RIRDC) Chapter 6


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