Though it is still the end of February, what with temperatures above 60°F and the sunny weather we have been experiencing this week here in Central Kentucky , I decided it was time to open my hives, remove frames, and actually see what was going on inside. What did I want to see on the frames and what were my concerns? I was looking for brood, food and bees.
First, I checked for brood, both larvae (uncapped brood) and pupae (capped brood). Due to the time of year, the nice weather, and the pollen I’ve been seeing carried into the hive, I expected my colonies to be rearing brood. I was correct in this, and saw at least 2-3 frames of brood in all the hives (with one exception). This tells me that the spring buildup (increased population) is starting in my hives and progressing normally.
I was also concerned about food stores, both honey and pollen. This time of year I would like to see at least several full, deep frames of honey left over from what was stored last fall, as well as fresh nectar. This would be enough food to get the colonies through any cold spells that may still occur, or through any extended rainy periods when foragers cannot get out of the hive. I observed both, noting the fresh nectar near the young brood. In some of the hives, I actually counted the frames of stored, capped honey (from last fall) as I went through the top brood box. In others, I was able to determine that sufficient honey was present by the weight of the top deeps (pretty heavy) as I lifted them to check the bottom boxes. When counting frames of honey, I observed in most of the hives at least the minimum of 3-4 frames of honey per hive that I hoped to find.
In addition to honey and nectar, there were cells containing the fresh pollen that I had been observing on the bees’ legs at the hive entrances. I took note of quite a bit of pollen left over from last fall in some of the frames, which is a plus; this gives them some pollen reserves. How to tell fresh from old? Fresh pollen has a bright color, and is found adjacent to cells containing fresh nectar and near where brood is being reared on the same frames. Older pollen is duller, and may be found on frames outside where new brood is being produced, though available if needed. Pollen is a very important part of the bees’ diet when rearing larvae, so I always check for stores of it in the hive along with honey reserves.
The third thing looked for was bees. I noted the number of frames covered with bees in the top brood box in order to get an idea of hive population or strength. Most had about 7-8 frames of bees, which is good for late February or early March in Kentucky. I want full hives by April when our nectar will be in full flow and the bees will commence serious honey production. I was also glad to see nothing abnormal in the brood or the bees that were present. This indicates, along with the number of bees and the normal activities being performed, that the bees are sufficiently healthy.
All of these observations were from the top brood boxes in each hive. The bottom boxes were mostly empty, which is normal for this time of year. The typical winter procedure of the colony’s cluster (in parts of the world that have winter) is to consume all the honey in the bottom box during the winter, then move up into top prior to early spring – which is where I found my hives’ clusters and activity. In the bottom boxes, I did see bees, but bees only; all the frames were empty, which is also normal for very early spring. I was actually happy to see this condition, which gives the colonies room to expand during the next month, lessens the chances of early swarming (I hope), and allows the colonies to begin reaching full strength in April. I’ll check these hives again in a couple of weeks, if the weather cooperates, and will expect to see the brood area expanded into the bottom boxes at that time.
Some thoughts for newer beekeepers:
As I removed the frames, I was careful to put them back in the same order in which I removed them. I don’t always do this. Later in the spring I may rearrange or remove frames (replacing them with other frames) to manage brood production, to TRY to prevent swarming, or for other management reasons. But now, with many cold nights still to come, I’m very careful to not disturb the natural clustering of the colonies, which are concentrated around brood and adjacent frames of food.
I also observed that, with the exception of one weak hive, no feeding will be required in the immediate future for these hives. In fact, I’m concerned that at some time in the future I may have too many frames of stored honey in several of my hives for maximum brood production. During the next couple of months, I want the hives to rear lots of brood, and to do this they must have empty comb. Later in the spring, if I see that all the comb in a hive is being filled with nectar, stored honey, and brood, I may decide that there are more frames of honey present in the brood boxes than the hives need (or rather decide that they need more empty comb in which to rear brood). At that time I may remove some frames of honey and replace them with frames of empty comb (which I have in storage), or with empty frames with foundation. But such a decision is for the future. I would not take such a step now, since the bottom boxes contain plenty of empty comb and one never knows about the weather at this time of year. We could still have extended periods of cold in the next month when the bees will need to consume large amounts of stored honey. Never the less, in the immediate future, I will not be concerned about feeding these hives.
You may have noticed that, on my list of things to do, I did not mention looking for queens. The reason is that there was no need to. I was looking at brood, and its presence (especially that of the larvae) told me that queens were active in all of my hives. I also did not mention looking for eggs. I did check for them in a few of the hives, but it was not really necessary, and it takes longer. I was satisfied that my observations of larvae and pupae told me what I needed to know about condition of the hives. Had I not seen brood or eggs in one of the hives, I would have then looked for the queen.
So far, so good. I’m happy with my hives at this time, and I’ll let you know what I see in a couple of weeks.