Bees flying on a warm winter day. Credit: Courtesy of Peter Cowin

While the world around us seems, at times, to be going crazy, it is so good to get into my beehives where there is order, calmness, industry and energy. There is nothing like the “buzz” you get opening dozens of hives bursting with bees as early as March. It is only going to get better as spring progresses.

Mother Nature blessed my bees with a mild winter and now appears to be treating us to a steadily improving spring. Just what the beekeeper needs to see: rapid colony build-up.

This winter I kept colonies in seven yards from Castine to Corinth and in all but one yard I have averaged more than 91 percent survival. Considering the national average was only 61 percent last year, I am very pleased. It seems that for the most part, I have been getting my mite treatments, nutrition and winter preparations right.

I suspect that in one yard out of a total of seven, where I had half of my total winter losses, my bees suffered from the inexperience of one or two neighboring beekeepers who did not treat their hives sufficiently for virus-carrying mites. As winter approached, their hives started to die and my bees robbed out some of their honey and brought back loads of mites (and virus) after I had thought I had finished treating. This is something that catches out many beekeepers.

My rule of thumb is to keep treating till the bees stop flying in the fall, for just this reason.

So, just like dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, isolation is a help and so is having those neighbors with whom you may come into contact, healthy and virus-free.

The main thing to watch for right now is to ensure colonies do not run out of food. From what I have observed, most colonies still have a fair amount of honey but a few were very light. You can usually predict this the fall before by identifying the colonies you were a bit concerned by going into winter.

Indeed, a few of my losses (in my six good yards) were from starvation. In these hives, the cluster had worked its way into a corner or one side of the hive and in effect isolated itself from half a box of honey on the opposite side of the hive. Some hives just have bad luck that way.

Spring management to prevent starvation includes “hefting” the hive (lifting the front or back to estimate the hive’s weight). Hives should still feel heavy with honey. If they feel in any way light weight, they need emergency rations. The surest way to address this is by adding winter patties (nearly all sugar) placed on top of the cluster at the top of the hive. Keep adding them as required till nectar is flowing. With this mild spring weather, some hives will take sugar syrup either with an entrance feeder or hive top feeder. I am doing both. Seems that some hives will take the syrup and others are reluctant to. As the weather warms, this will get easier.

Hives that have plenty of honey can also have pollen patties added. Bees need pollen to feed to the brood and to feed young adults so they, in turn, can produce royal jelly required for brood production. Pollen patties added early in the spring stimulate early brood rearing. This is fine if a hive has sufficient honey to feed the larger population and increased demand for food.

Pollen is just starting to come in from the trees and will build steadily as the weather improves. If however, we get a sustained spell of cool wet weather, colonies may run short of, or out of, pollen reserves and this is when pollen patties will help supplement these reserves.

Of my overwintered colonies 75 percent of them had clusters of bees in March that appeared to already fill the upper brood chamber. It looks to me that we are going to see a lot of early swarms this year as colonies become crowded. Remember to add honey supers before the colony has completely filled both brood boxes with bees. Aim for the point at which the colony is occupying 80 percent of the space available, then it’s time for the next box.

Most of my AdultEd beekeeping classes have been canceled due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Check my Facebook page, The Bee Whisperer, or call me on 207-299-6948 for alternative options.

Packaged bees are still expected in the first week of May if you need equipment or other supplies please pick these up ahead of time so we can keep numbers of people down on bee pick-up day. I am now taking orders for 5 frame nucs available about June 1. Call for more info.

Peter Cowin, aka The Bee Whisperer, is President of the Penobscot County Beekeepers Association. His activities include honey production, pollination services, beekeeping lessons, sales of bees and beekeeping equipment and the removal of feral bee hives from homes and other structures. Check out his website or go to “The Bee Whisperer” on Facebook.