Spring is generally the busiest time of year for a beekeeper, and this one is no exception. Beehives that died over the winter need replaced, weak hives need built up, strong hives need divided, all before the spring nectar flow gets going. To top it off, the erratic temperatures and perpetual rain of our Ohio weather makes for a scheduling nightmare. Naturally, this seemed like the appropriate time to write my first blog post.
One thing I've prided myself on as a beekeeper is that I've never had to purchase new hives or package bees to replace colonies that died over the winter. Instead, existing colonies are divided (beekeepers call this "making splits") and given new queens. These splits may be made up as full-size colonies for honey production, or as smaller sized colonies (called nucleus colonies or "nucs") to maintain a supply of extra queens throughout the year or to sell to other beekeepers.
The main requirement for making spring splits is strong, healthy colonies coming out of winter. These colonies get fed in early spring to ensure they are at their peak strength when they are split. Even though they lose some bees, these colonies bounce back quickly and will be making honey by May.
The second requirement for making splits is a source of new queen bees. I purchase mated queens from professional queen breeders. This gives new hives a head start by having a good queen that can start laying eggs right away. This also ensures that the hives are getting queens bred for gentle behavior, good honey production, and disease resistance. While I raise a few queens on my own each year, it takes a lot of expertise, time, and resources to raise a large number of quality queens. Buying queens supports bee breeding programs, gives me the best possible quality queens, and lets me focus my energy on honey production.
So with strong hives bursting with bees, new queens ready to head new colonies, and a free weekend to get everything done; spring splits were going to be a cinch this year.
Then my car broke down.
So now with my car in the shop for the whole weekend, I had to change plans around. The hives I had been planning to use for splits are in an outyard, and in my pedestrian quandary, inaccessible. Fortunately, there were enough hives in my backyard to furnish bees for a few splits and thanks to Kelly Ewing from Somerford Gardens, I was able to secure a truck to move them to their new location. She even helped me make the remaining splits in another yard. It was all very exciting: we saw several ticks and even ran over a pheasant (Kelly was driving). This all would have made great pictures for this blog post, had anyone bothered to take any. Sadly this was not the case, and instead I have a far less interesting picture from that day: some nucleus colonies ready to be loaded on a truck.
Once the splits were made up and moved to their new locations, I was able to borrow another truck, this time from my brother, and install the new queens. The hives were then left alone for a week so the bees can get used to their new queen. By this time, my car was all fixed and I was again a beekeeper of his own means. After a week, all was well with the new hives.
Queen introduction cages have a candy-filled tube which seals the queen in the cage. As the bees get used to the new queens pheromones, they slowly chew through the candy. By the time the queen is released, the bees have accepted her as their own. Occasionally, the bees ignore the candy and the queen has to be released manually. If the bees are receptive to the queen, they will be attracted to the introduction cage and can be seen feeding her through the cage.
The new queens begin laying right away and after a few weeks will need relocated into a full-size hive. Despite the rain and cold, colonies tend to build up well in spring due to the abundant pollen and nectar available. These colonies should be ready to produce some summer honey or replace colonies that may happen to fail later in the year. The goal of all this work is to make sure that before winter, every colony is strong and healthy, with a young queen and ample bees.
Just for the heck of it, I took some more pictures while I was out doing splits. Here they are in a slide show for your viewing pleasure:
Thanks for reading and please feel free to subscribe for further tales of bee adventures!