Newbie FAQs – Spring!

We’re getting swarmed (pun intended) with calls from new and first year beekeepers wondering about spring bee activities. Here are some of the FAQs, and my responses. As always, these are my answers. Others will have different opinions, experience and insights.

How do I clean up a dead-out?

Here’s what I tend to do after a dead colony’s postmortem:

Frames are removed and evaluated:

If the frames are gross with bee poop, I toss the entire thing. Frames are relatively cheap and I don’t want to risk passing on disease and disgust to the new bees.

If the frames are so dark such that I can’t see sunlight thru them, I punch out the wax. (This of course assumes all wax foundation.) I leave anywhere from a trace amount to an inch around the frame’s interior for bees to use as a guide in drawing new comb. Hopefully they’ll get started in the right direction with that.

I'd toss this one also. Too many dead bees that I can't remove, but more importantly--the wax is quite dark (and thus, well used.) It has absorbed lots of chemicals from our environment.
I’d toss this frame. Too many dead bees that I can’t remove, but more importantly–the wax is quite dark (and thus, well used.) It has absorbed lots of chemicals from our environment.

I'd toss this frame.
I’d toss this frame also, too much fecal matter for me.

If there are dead bees, I remove most of them. They’ll rot now that it is above freezing. Hopefully many of them fall out when I gently tap the frame, but if not, I’ll try to tweezer out most of them. Bees do this clean-out way more efficiently, but I can help with that – I can’t help with pollinating or wax building and I’d rather give them time to focus on that. Of course, there comes a point where I get grossed out and too sad from pulling out dead bee carcasses and stop. I will use frames with some dead bees, but I won’t dump all that clean-up effort on the same colony, or all at once.

If there are rodent-chewed sections, I tend to cut out around them. Bees will rebuild that area, but in my experience they don’t like combs with rodent activity. If there’s significant rodent debris (poop, fur, etc.), I toss the frame.

If frames are moldy, I air them out well and give them sun. That usually takes care of it. If not, they’re tossed.

If frames have crystallized mite urine in them (quite common in colonies that died as a result of Varroa infestation) I will reuse the frames if they’ve passed the above criteria.

For all my new colonies, I’ll mix in some virgin wax as well. I don’t think it is a nice welcome wagon to the new bees to say “hope you like it here, pay no attention to the evidence that the last bees I had died …”

Boxes and frames are repaired as needed. Then …

Boxes get washed out with a very mild bleach solution if they have poop or other debris on them, and rinsed well, and then lots of sterilizing sunshine.

Boxes may get another coat of paint on them just because I’m unsure when I’ll be able to do that again – hopefully not for years because they’re inhabited by a thriving colony.

REMEMBER: you will start a new colony in just one box, and add the next box when they’re ready. Bees installed on drawn comb will build-up faster, but you don’t want to install them into a bunch of boxes as they aren’t enough of them yet to regulate the heat appropriately, or stay on top of beetles, moths, etc. That’s just too much space.

What conditions do I need to install my new package?

You need at least 50 degrees, and hopefully sunny with a light breeze. That package can sit in a cool, dark place with a daily couple spritzes of 1:1 sugar solution if you need to wait for Mother Nature to cooperate. If she isn’t going to cooperate, grab an experienced beekeeper to help get them installed quickly.

I recommend installing late afternoon, as bees will be less likely to all take off if the day is coming to a close. It is rare, but sometimes they do abscond.

I also recommend the “put the package in the box” method as opposed to shaking them in. Less stress on the bees, less stress on you. That method on a macro-level consists of:

  • Hang queen cage in the middle of the frames in a box (make sure you hang it so the screen is facing outward – the worker bees need to love and touch her and feed her.) Put all frames in that box (or maybe less one if you need room for the queen cage.)
  • Put the package in the bottom box (no frames), reduce down the entrance to just an inch, and loosely stuff grass in that hole. You want the queen’s scent to quickly permeate the boxes, and they’ll remove the grass as it wilts within hours.
  • Remove the lid and feeder can from the package, close up the colony. (Installing your feeder appropriately of course.)

The bees will come out of the box and move up to keep the most essential bee in their colony warm and nurtured. Slip back into the colony in a day and remove both the bottom box and the shipping box so you’re down to one box until the colony grows enough to add the second.

If you want detailed instructions on pre-installation prep and installation, contact me for my hand-out (QueenBeeCharlotte@gmail.com.)

Do I feed my new colony? If so, how? There are blooms aplenty now …

Yes, yes, yes–feed! While there are those who take a tough love approach of “your bees need to make it on their own”, you’ve just brought a non-native species from a grand spring environment (the south) to an area with greatly variable temperatures and emerging forage. Having readily available nutrition at the hive will help them get off to a better start.

They may totally ignore it, but I like to provide the option. A few days of April showers will be great for May flowers, but not helpful to a just-installed colony with no stores and no fuel to make comb.

jar feeding (1)
Jar feeder in the front, and the entrance reduced until they can better regulate temperatures and defend the colony.

How do I feed? All equipment has pros and cons, but I personally like a jar feeder out front—allows me to tell without opening the colony if they need more or not. Jar feeders are usually great this time of year. Later in the season (or even now) they may encourage raiding, so you have to keep an eye on that. Another great way to feed is to use a jar feeder above the inner cover in an empty box (with the top cover over that.) That way, you don’t disturb the colony much to check the feed level, feed is readily available to them in inclement weather, and it doesn’t invite raiders.

What do you feed?

1:1 sugar syrup, and typically, a piece of a pollen patty in the hive. I’ll set it on the top bars, or above the inner cover if I’m feeding with an internal jar feeder (as discussed previously.) Keep an eye on pollen patties though – small hive beetles LOVE them, so if the bees aren’t using them, remove.

How do I make 1:1?

The easiest way I’ve found is to pour five pounds of WHITE sugar in a clean gallon jug. Add hot tap water and shake and shake and shake. And add more hot tap water and keep shaking until the sugar is dissolved. Mixing in a cup or so of real honey wouldn’t hurt, nor would adding Honey-B-Healthy as the scent of those additions would help a new colony find the food among other advantages.

Stay tuned …

The beginning of bee season in Michigan has challenges, and start-up of a new colony has lots of key checks. I will be posting more over the next several weeks to address the questions we’re getting. As always, you can contact me directly (see my email above). I check it frequently, when I’m not in a hive …. which I hope to “bee” most of the time! :)

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