Updated Content and Dates: Jan 2017
A Beekeeping Diary #3: Early Spring—Unpacking and Evaluating Colonies
You often hear it said around here: “April is by far the cruelest month”. At this time of year we can spend one whole day outside in the warm sunshine, and then look out the next morning to see a blizzard in progress, with a foot of snow already on the ground. In fact, the extreme high and low temperatures on record for the first week of April are only about 10 degrees (F) off of our usual extremes of heat and cold for the entire year. These transitions and setbacks can seem especially brutal in the early spring.
I try to work through this season, and get myself slowly ramped up for the return to continuous outdoor work, by gradually unpacking the bees, getting a rough idea of the size of the clusters, and recording the location of the best looking colonies in each family group. It’s often too wet to drive into many locations, so at first things go pretty slowly and I have to carry the packing cases out or make weather proof stacks in the yards. Just about the time when the last packing cases are being removed is usually the low point of the year—as far as the bees are concerned. This is where the verdict is finally handed down, and the results of your management scheme are plain to see. After a tough winter, and/or heavy losses, it can look pretty depressing. I’m afraid that even after what I would consider good results over winter, many beekeepers would not be very impressed if they came here in early April. There seem to be way too many empty spaces, and the clusters are very small. But now I know better than to spend any energy being discouraged—even if my losses are near 50%. With almost all surviving colonies headed by young, tested queens; extra queens in the baby nucs; and the ability to raise a few early cells if need be; the apiary still has enormous potential to recover and produce surplus honey and bees when the weather becomes favorable. Since the arrival of tracheal mites, I’ve had four or five springs with 50% winter loss. I used to worry about all the boxes of comb, honey, and foundation packed into the shop. Now I pace up and down while the April showers drum on the roof; counting the stacks over and over, wondering if I will have enough. Even when I’ve lost half of my colonies over the winter, I can still sell some bees in the spring and also propagate the apiary back to its original size. I may have lost some of the honey crop by doing this, but overall my production of bees and honey has remained quite well balanced. Even while going through the process of eliminating treatments from the apiary and having heavy losses, I sold some bees every year except one. My 10 year average honey crop, which includes all of my “disasters”, is 89 lbs. During the last five years, when the apiary has been run without treatments of any kind, the average has been 96 lbs per colony.
So, there are ways to protect yourself and recover from heavy losses, without migrating to the South. If you’re propagating your own stock, a heavy winter loss can also become an asset in future years. After a 40-50% loss, the stage is set for filling all of your equipment with really well-adapted bees, and achieving much better results in the coming years. Going through this process doesn’t require any kind of extraordinary beekeeping skill or esoteric knowledge—just steady work and a willingness to re-orient your thinking. Much of the potential of northern beekeeping has remained invisible during the era of cheap transport and easy availability of bees and queens from the South.
I’ve made early April sound pretty grim; but it is at least the time when winter finally has to make way for spring. There also occurs now one of the most wonderful and exciting events of the whole beekeeping year: the first good day for the bees to gather pollen. Around here this pollen comes from the soft maples, and the event usually takes place sometime between April 10-15. There was one year when the bees could gather lots of maple pollen on March 30; and I recall at least two years when they had to wait until April 21. But whenever it occurs, you can go right to the calendar and mark down another important date: in exactly three weeks there will be new bees hatching out in quantity once again. A new season is underway.