Spring Inspection of Beehives
Every beekeeper does things a little differently, but this is a good guideline to follow for spring inspections of beehives.
On a warm (above 50°F) day in late February or early March, remove the top cover and inner cover of the hive to determine the condition of the bees. The top box should be the honey super that was placed on in the fall. DO NOT REMOVE ANY FRAMES from the hive; just look through the cracks between the frames to see if there are bees. If there are live bees in the top box and there are few frames in that box with honey, you will need to feed the bees. Mix a 1:1 ratio (by weight or volume—they are equal) of granulated sugar and warm water to make a sugar syrup. For 1:1 syrup you can just use hot water from the tap. There are many ways to feed the bees this sugar water. In the spring one of the best methods is to use a plastic container such as a plastic coffee can, potato salad bucket, or anything between ½ and 1 gallon capacity with a tight-fitting lid. A grocery store deli is a great place to find these kinds of containers. Make sure they are clean before you put them on the hives and that they don’t leak. Poke about six holes near the center of the lid with a frame nail. This makes a hole big enough for the bees to drink through but not big enough for the sugar water to leak out. Fill this container with the sugar water and place it upside down on the top bars off to the side of the cluster. By this point the weather gets warm enough for the bees to break cluster and get to the sugar water and putting it off to the size minimizes the damage to the bees if the bucket should leak. It’s always better to have too much food than too little—put on the sugar water even if there are still four or five capped frames in the top super.
If there are no live bees in the top super, you will need to ascertain whether the cluster is in the lower boxes or if the bees are dead. When a hive of bees dies in the winter, all the bees will die at once. If there are a lot of dead bees between the frames and a lot of dead bees with their heads in the cells, the hive is dead. If there are a few live bees they are most likely robbers from another hive. If the hive is dead you can either take it down and clean it up immediately or let the bees from surrounding hives rob out the honey. If you choose to leave the hive for the other bees to rob, close it up as securely as it was before. Mice love to move into abandoned hives, so make sure that the mouse guards are still in place. Sometimes you can determine the cause of death by looking at the hive, but other times it’s hard to tell. If the dead cluster is in the top box and there are only a few frames of honey left on the edges, the bees most likely starved.
If there are no dead or live bees in the top box, it is safe to lift off the entire box to see if the cluster is alive is in the box below. If it is, put the super back on and leave the hive alone. If the super is still full of honey they should have enough to make it until spring. Never assume that a hive is dead unless you find the dead cluster of bees. The bees will probably not be rearing brood yet at this time, so finding a lot of live bees is evidence enough that the hive is alive. Never take down a hive unless you’re sure that it’s dead. If the weather isn’t warm enough for a lot of bees to be flying, it’s easier to tell whether or not a hive is alive because any live bees in the hive probably belong to it.
If you have to feed sugar water to the bees, check the levels about once a week to make sure they have enough. Otherwise, leave the hives alone until the daffodils bloom. By this time the bees should be starting to raise brood. When the weather is 70°F or above, it’s safe to make a more thorough hive inspection. Most likely, the bees will be in the top box or two. Take all the boxes off the hive, remove the mouse guard or entrance reducer, and scrape all the dead bees and debris off the bottom board. Determine which box has the most eggs or young brood in it and put this box on the bottom. If there are two boxes with brood on just a few frames, you can put all of the brood frames in one box if they’re the same size and put it on the bottom. Make sure that you don’t break up the brood nest because the bees have to keep it warm.
Bees like to move up rather than down, so put a brood box with empty frames on top of the bottom box(es). This is the time of year to take out old combs from the brood boxes that were on the bottom of the hive and replace them with new ones. MAKE SURE YOU CHECK EVERY FRAME YOU TAKE OUT VERY THOUROUGHLY TO MAKE SURE THERE ARE NO EGGS IN IT! This is easiest to do on a sunny day if you tilt the frame so that the light shines into the cells. The frames that have brood in them will also have more bees on them than empty frames.
By this point the bees shouldn’t need feeding anymore because there should be enough flowers blooming. Bees prefer natural forage to sugar water, so as soon as there is enough natural forage for them they will stop eating the sugar water. Once the bees stop feeding on the sugar water it’s best to take it off because it will attract ants. It’s usually best not to feed pollen substitutes in Michigan because they can stimulate brood rearing when it’s too early, which can kill the bees if they break cluster to cover the brood.
This is also a good time to evaluate the strength of the hive to see if it will need splitting soon or not. Late April, May and June are the time of the year for swarming, so beginning mid-April you should be checking the hives to see if they need splitting.