When does spring come for the bees?

bee crocus

As every beekeeper, and aromatherapist, knows spring can come more than once for the bees and the flowers. Today was a perfect spring day with glorious sunshine, balmy blue skies and a warm 14–15°C. There would be only one thing on the minds of beekeepers across the UK – the comb change.

Each year many British beekeepers give the hives a spring clean. The bees are moved onto fresh comb in cleaned-up brood boxes to start the season again. The comb change may be carried out using a shook swarm or Bailey depending on the health and strength of the colony, and also relying on ongoing warm weather with availability of local nectar and pollen.

emily blowtorching

The reason for the comb change? To keep down the diseases and pests in the colony. The timing of the comb change? That’s up for discussion.

There are some beekeepers who like to shook swarm their hives as soon as the weather allows in late February to early March. The reason being that the earlier you shook swarm the less brood you lose, and the bees can get a head start to the season.

Then there are some beekeepers who prefer to change the comb from late March to early April. They like to wait for consistently warmer days and for the trees to be blossoming.

bee drinking

In March the weather is not always consistent and spring can come and go a few of times before it stays. It is important to get the timing right for the comb change: too soon for a weak colony or before a string of warm days might make it more difficult for the bees to recover from a shook swarm or to build-up a Bailey; too late in the season means losing more brood (in a shook swarm) and perhaps leaving the bees less time to yield a honey harvest that year.

A couple of experienced beekeepers at the apiary had already shook swarmed some or all of their hives. If you’re a more professional beekeeper or commercial bee farmer with 50, 100 or more hives, I can understand the eagerness to get going early in the season.

For the hobbyist or backyard beekeeper with three or five hives, perhaps we have more time on our side to do a couple of inspections first and wait for the warmer weather to hold before carrying out a comb change.

a jonesey beekeeping

When do you prefer to do your comb change? And how do you decide when spring has arrived for your bees?

The first best day of the year at Ealing apiary brought bigger concerns for the beekeepers. Who was making the tea and would there be cake? Luckily Emily had baked a cake and Elsa was busy making tea to keep everyone content. We had a couple of German beekeepers visiting the apiary who were fascinated to learn more about our bees. After a cup of tea and a slice of cake, Emily and I satisfied their curiosity, and ours, by taking the first look inside the hives this year.

emilys cake

A feast of tea and cake for beekeepers.

a robin feast

A feast of mealworms and biscuit crumbs for the robin.

Melissa’s and Pepper’s hives were doing very well with bees busily pouring in and out. Chili’s and Chamomile’s hives were weak and though both queens were spotted there was virtually no brood. We closed up the weaker colonies with dummy boards to keep them warm and fed them spring sugar syrup to try and stimulate their activity.

a queen chili

Pink-crowned Queen Chili was easy to spot.

a queen chamomile

Queen Chamomile sees her first sun of the year.

Jonsey kindly helped us to blow torch the empty brood boxes in readiness for the comb change, and Emily and I have started to make new brood frames. Tomorrow forecasts rain with cooler temperatures to follow next week. Spring should be here to stay, hopefully, by the end of March and we can move our bees into cleaned hives, though we may need to make a decision about our weaker hives before then.

bees play crocus

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26 thoughts on “When does spring come for the bees?

  1. Great photography. Looks like wonderful spring weather. Much like what we are experiencing in western Canada. Like pruning lilacs I like to remove one third of the old foundation each year. I am a foundationless beekeeper. As well as removing diseases and pests I think it is necessary to remove the build up of toxins in the wax from agrochemicals to everyday consumer products. A study done of North American hives showed the presence of 118 different pesticides not to mention fungicides and herbicides which effect the gut and digestion of the bee. http://goo.gl/HmkDyM Hope the spring stays warm and bee friendly for you.

    • I hadn’t thought of the build up of agrochemicals or generally pollutants I suppose, though that makes sense we’re removing build up of all toxins not just disease and pests. I always say that I give my own home a spring clean each year – everything is taken out of each room and cleaned, and the room cleaned – so why not the bees?

      • Hallo Emma, I was trying to find a way of e-mailing you but cannot find that information. I was wondering why you, as an aromatherapist, do not seem to use essential oils in your hive treatments againt varroa. I do not use oxalyc, amino or thymol acids in my hives. I do use lavendin, lemongrass, wintergreen and aniseed. I vary their uses. Aniseed and lemongrass are attractants. Lemongrass, wintergreen and lavendin, as opposed to lavender that is, are all useful for making the varroa feel unhappy. Which causes it to vacate the building….. Just like Elvis…… If you are interested I can send you more information.

  2. P.S. My method of comb change is the girls move up to the second deep super by the end of winter so I remove the bottom deep which has the oldest wax.

    • That’s interesting way of easing the bees onto fresher comb during winter to spring though when the queen lays they would only have drone comb in the super? Of course, I’ve heard of Flow Hive and recent reports it will revolutionise beekeeping (it doesn’t, it only makes honey extraction easier in certain circumstances and getting the honey off the hive is already fairly straightforward). What would revolutionise beekeeping is a way to more gently and quickly change the comb each year, and of course protect bees from diseases and pests year round.

    • Funny story behind those two worker bees (both female). They were moving very slowly on a wilting part of the crocus and we thought they might have gotten cold. So we lifted them to warm them with our hands and breath then fed them sugar syrup on the hot tin roofs. One flew off, back to her hive to tell of her adventures I presume. The other flew back to the now wilted flower and seemed trying to nurse it back to life! We left her there suspecting she was an old winter bee clinging to her chosen resting place 🙂 Lives of bees! xx

  3. Pingback: When does spring come for the bees? | WORLD ORGANIC NEWS

  4. Great photos Emma. Bill Fitzmaurice left me a useful comment on my blog –

    “All’s not lost though, Emily. I’m a believer in strengthening weak colonies this time of year with a frame of almost emerging brood from your strong colonies. It can make a huge difference very quickly. And repeat in a week or two. Hope they pull through. Bill”

    His comment has got me thinking that perhaps when we do the shook swarms on the stronger colonies we could donate some of their brood to the weaker ones?

    • That was my thoughts exactly, I had said that yesterday at the apiary as it is what we’ve done previously for weaker colonies. In hindsight overnight I wish that we’d taken a frame from Pepper’s hive to put in Chili’s hive and from Melissa’s hive to Chamomile’s hive to leave for the week. Though I always find it tricky to think clearly and to get everything done when more people are there. My concern with combining either weaker colony with the stronger colonies is spreading the disease. Combining the weaker colonies might not bring huge advantages because both queens are now in their third year and neither appear to be laying well. Even transferring into a nuc, I now think just to keep warmer, while helpful night not mean the queens will start to lay well. So as Bill says, doing what we’ve done plus adding a frame of brood might be the best way forward.

      • Hopefully adding the brood will be enough to keep them going till there’s drones about to get a new queen mated. If we’re doing to be doing that each week perhaps it would be better to do the Bailey comb change on the stronger colonies, though of course then we lose out on the anti varroa benefits of the break in brood. Lots to think about!

      • I thought that we might do a Bailey comb change this year on the stronger colonies because we did a shook swarm last year. The National Bee Unit advises a complete comb change every couple of years, I think, and unless the stronger colonies look like they have have a problem with higher disease levels, then they might be OK to start on a Bailey. Alternating between Bailey and shook swarm each year (if the health/strength of the colonies allow) seems a kinder way to keep the bees on fresh comb. Also a Bailey on the stronger colonies means we’ll have two to three weeks of spare brood to transfer to the weaker colonies.

        Our hives tend to get swarmy by late April and May, so that should bring a break in brood for anti-varroa benefits! 🙂

    • Thanks! I agree with you it’s best to wait rather than leap into action on the first sunny day of the year. An inspection or two to see how the bees are doing might be helpful. If both our stronger hives are looking well and healthy we might Bailey comb change rather than shook swarm, I think the National Bee Unit advises shook swarm can be done every couple of years and I think, unless the colony needs it to get rid of disease, it’s kinder to alternate between shook swarm and Bailey each year. Of course that might change once we have a proper look at our stronger colonies. Always have to think on your feet in beekeeping!

  5. I don’t know of anyone around here doing a full comb change all at once. I personally just date the frames and switch out older ones now and then. I don’t use foundation so I just cut out the comb and extract any honey or just melt down the wax if it’s brood comb.

    It was warm enough yesterday that the bees were flying for the first time this year! Going to have a few more days of weather like this.

    • I like the idea of changing comb gradually seems much gentler on the bees. Though I wish we’d shook swarmed Chamomile’s colony last year into a nuc or smaller hive as that might have sorted out their health there and then, the gentler approach over the year hasn’t worked for them and now the neighbouring hive is in decline too. This will be my sixth year keeping bees (seventh since I started learning about beekeeping) and still realising that there are lessons every season. Like you I do hope that we get many more warm spring days 🙂

  6. It’s funny I was just reading in a French bee keeping book that it is imperative to do a full comb change and flame the box every year. I couldn’t remember you mentioning it before and then you did this post. Must pay more attention! Amelia

    • Hi Amelia, shook swarming is also favoured annually by many UK beekeepers who recommend it for varroa control and keeping healthy colonies. Several of the experienced beekeepers do it early March, though I know at least two of those beekeepers have bigger, stronger colonies than those at the teaching apiary in Perivale and they keep their hives in prime locations around London. Shook swarming is not always best for smaller colonies who may struggle to recover, and probably not necessary annually if disease is low – you could alternate between Bailey and shook swarm each year if appropriate for the particular hive.

      The National Bee Unit have useful fact sheets on how and why to shook swarm http://www.nationalbeeunit.com/index.cfm?pageid=167

      And how to care for colonies after shook swarm http://www.nationalbeeunit.com/index.cfm?pageid=167

      I also read an IBRA research paper on health on honeybee colonies that had/hadn’t been shook swarmed which was interesting http://www.ibra.org.uk/articles/20080611_63

  7. Really interesting and very informative post! I love bees and me and my husband are planning to get hives and become beekeepers! Thank you for the post! Greetings!

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