Spring Beekeeping Management
Next to wintering this seems to be the next biggest topic of discussion. And, next to wintering, this seems to be the most tied to climate. I can really only share with any confidence what I've actually experienced in my climate. Most places I've had bees are similar (cold winters etc.) but some were a bit colder (Laramie) and some a bit drier (Laramie, Brighton and Mitchell). But all in all most of my experience is in either the Panhandle of Nebraska or Southeast Nebraska. So keep that in mind.
Spring is a very volatile and unpredictable time here. We could have warm sunny flying weather and tree pollen as early as late February, but sometimes it stays cold until April. Our first actual nectar availability of any size, is the early fruit trees somewhere between early and late April, with mid April being most likely. The thing that seems to set off spring build up the most is pollen. Feeding syrup is iffy at best. If you feed syrup in February or March (if it every warms up enough to do so) and they decide to brood up a lot and we get a hard freeze (sub zero would not be unusual around here) then they could die from trying to keep the brood warm. On the other hand if they don't get going before the first nectar flow in mid April they won't build up enough to make a good crop. I like to just make sure they have pollen and stores. Dry sugar can stave off starvation. If the weather stays warm enough and they are light enough I might try syrup. I would still stick with 2:1 or 5:3 and not 1:1. 1:1 is just too much moisture in the hive and it doesn't keep well. So my main spring management up until the first blooms is to make sure they have pollen and they don't starve from lack of honey. Once the early flow starts, there is no need to feed really, but if it stays rainy for long periods it might pay. My bottom board feeders are easy enough to feed with on the fly like this. Just put in the plugs and fill with syrup even if it's raining. It helps to have a cover to keep the rain out of the syrup if it's really pouring, but if it's just drizzling, the 2:1 will work well and even if it gets watered down the bees still seem pretty interested as it gets diluted, all the way up to 1:2 or more.
The next issue in spring is heading off swarming. Of course you keep enough supers on that they don't run out of room. But in my experience, this alone will not head off swarming. You need some way to convince them that swarm preparation is not what is happening. If my bees had overhead honey, as Walt Wright's seem to in Tennessee, then I think I would do checkerboarding/Nectar Management. But since mine are virtually always in the top box and I don't have capped honey to checkerboard above them, I just try to keep the brood nest open. In April, they are usually too small to swarm, but if they get going a lot, I'd put more boxes on. They only seem to swarm in April if they get overcrowded. In May is when I have to deal with swarm prevention. The ideal is to keep them from swarming without splitting so you can have a maximum work force to make honey. In order to do this, I recommend keeping the brood nest open. Checkerboarding is fine for this, but as I say I don't seem to have the same conditions that lend well to this. So if a hive is getting really booming and strong from about early May on, I open up the brood nest. I do this with empty frames. No foundation. Just empty frames. Put these in the middle of the brood nest and they are quickly drawn and filled with brood. How many will depend on the strength of the hive. But if the nights aren't that chilly anymore and they can easily fill the gap where I intend to put the empty frame with festooning bees, then I can put another in. The maximum, which should only be done on a really strong hive, is an empty frame every other frame. The minimum, other than none, is one frame.
If you want more bees and honey isn't your prime consideration then do splits. Sometime on some warm days in April I will try to get all the way to the bottom board and clean it off while looking through the hive for brood, eggs, etc. to make sure things are going well. Other than that I just judge the strength and rate at which the population is increasing. Until you get good at judging this at a glance, look for swarm cells. Usually you can tip a box up and find them hanging down from the bottom of the frames. In the long run, this will give you an idea how much critical mass causes them to swarm and you can judge better how much to intervene. If you have swarm cells though, you already missed the opportunity for a large crop and now you need to worry about making splits.
Of course you need to add supers. You don't want to do this when the hive is still struggling and the weather is cold, but once they are building up you need to add them. Doubling the space of the hive is my goal. If they are two boxes full, then I add two boxes. If they are four boxes full, then I add four boxes. Of course you eventually may, in a bumper crop year, get so tall you can't do this anymore, but it's a good way to try not to run out of room without giving them more room than they can handle.
Copyright 2009 by Michael Bush