Depending on the season, you will find there are different tasks required to maintain a healthy hive. For example, Spring and Summer are usually busy seasons, with many duties to ensure the hive is ready for the heavy flowering seasons.
I recommend keeping a record of hive inspections. I have a diary or logbook to write down what I observe and do each time I inspect the hive.
Record keeping can be electronic or hard copy, and it can be as detailed or as general as you choose. Just make sure you pick whatever is the easiest and most comfortable for you to maintain.
I like to keep a log or record because it helps me remember what I saw and did last time I looked in the hive and reminds me what I had planned to do if I forget on the next inspection.
Spring and Summer
In Spring and Summer, you will inspect the hive more often because the bees are more active, and the nectar flow is strong.
I also like to write down in my book the date, time, and weather conditions. It is recommended to only open the hive when the temperature is above 18 degrees Celsius (64 Fahrenheit). Temperatures lower than this can kill the developing brood. Therefore, it’s always good to check the weather before you inspect your hive.
Where I live, it’s often windy, so unless it’s only a light breeze, I won’t open the hive. In strong winds, bees are less likely to forage because of the difficulty of going from and to the hive. A strong wind could also bring down the temperature making it too cold to inspect the hive.
First Spring Hive Inspection
If this is the first time you open the hive after Winter, then you will need to undertake a thorough inspection of your hive as it has been a quite a few weeks since the hive has been opened.
Choose a sunny day in early Spring when the air temperature is above 18 degrees (64 degrees Celsius).
Remove the lid and turn it upside down on the ground, as this is where you will rest the supers (boxes) to keep them clean. Scrape off any burr comb from the lid.
Place the box(es) one by one on the upturned lid. As you place each super on the lid, I recommend rotating each one slightly as you place it down. This prevents them from sticking to one another.
Clean the base of the hive, removing any dirt or debris with a cloth. Clean each box, scraping off any sticky residue around the edges.
Return the first box on the base and inspect each frame for brood, honey, and pollen stores.
Begin by removing the second frame first and after inspecting it, place it gently against the hive, in an empty super or frame holder. Remove the second frame first as the side frames are often cemented to the sides of the box.
Check to see if the queen is present. If you can’t find her, check for newly laid eggs or young larvae at the bottom of the cells. This will confirm she has been there recently.
At this time, it’s a good idea to replace only one or two wonky frames with ones that have drawn comb if you have them. This ensures the queen can start laying in them immediately without having to wait until the workers draw out the comb.
Only replace empty frames and ensure you keep all the brood together, then honey, then the frames with drawn comb at the sides.
If you have a second box, place it on top of the first one and begin your inspection as outlined above.
Consider if the bees have enough space. If bees were overflowing from the top when you opened the hive, it’s a good idea to add a super to give the colony more space to store honey.
If adding a super is necessary, I add a queen excluder, which is a metal (or plastic) grid that sits between the brood box and the honey super. The grid spaces allow the workers to enter the top box but prevent the queen from doing so. This allows honey to be harvested without any brood present.
Replace the lid. If there was moisture in the lid, place an icy pole stick, small twig, or stone at each corner to allow for some air to circulate. Make sure no bees can leave or enter between the gap.
Control the height of vegetation around the hive by cutting it short.
Ensure your bees have access to freshwater as they require a lot of water at this time of year.
If this is a new colony of bees in their first Spring season, consider whether it’s a good idea to take honey. You can check this post to find out why I don’t recommend taking honey from a new colony in the first season.
Inspecting Hives During Spring And Summer
Your subsequent inspections need not be so thorough. During Spring and Summer, approximately every three weeks or so, open your hive and check for the following:
Honey in the supers
Remove the lid and hive mat if you have one and inspect some of the frames in the super to work out how much honey is there. If most of the frames are at least three quarters or more full of capped honey on both sides, they can be removed and the honey extracted.
However, if there is much less capped honey, wait until the next inspection before considering extracting any. It will depend upon how healthy the colony is and whether there is a honey flow or not.
Check and clean the brood box
Every second or third time you inspect the hive, check for a healthy, solid brood pattern, and look for the queen. If you can’t see her, look for eggs or young larvae. This will mean the queen was on that frame only a few days ago.
If you decide to replace one or two old frames, replace them with frames that have drawn comb.
If the weather has been rough, check your hive about once a week to see they have enough honey. If you think there are not enough honey stores for the colony, start feeding them sugar syrup.
Beekeeping Through Autumn And Winter
Careful and well organized Autumn and Winter hive management is of paramount importance in the colony’s life. Observing and managing your hive at the appropriate times ensures your bees will survive through the cold weather into the Spring.
As a beekeeper, you have two principal tasks in Autumn. To protect the colony from robber bees that invade looking for food and prepare the hive to be shut down for the Winter. When performed correctly, these tasks will ensure the colony has enough bee numbers coming into Spring when the nectar begins to flow.
Reducing the Risk Of Robbing
In Australia, if robbing occurs, it usually happens in Autumn. We have European wasps during this time of year, and they can rob the hive of honey, brood, and adult bees.
I’ve seen the occasional wasp carry off adult bees at or near the hive entrance.
To minimize robbing, you should reduce the entrance’s width to about 5 to 10 centimeters (2-4 inches), using a piece of foam cut to the size needed or a small piece of wood. This way, the guard bees don’t have to defend too much space.
When you conduct an inspection, don’t leave the hive open for too long and clean away any burr comb, sugar syrup, or frames, so robbers aren’t attracted.
Feeding The Hive Ready For Winter
Approximately 4 to 6 full frames of honey are needed for the colony to survive over Winter. Talk with local beekeepers about how much honey they leave for their bees.
Also, consider the local weather conditions. If you live in a very cold area, you may need to leave more than 6 frames, whereas, in a warmer climate, you can leave less. If you’re uncertain, it’s better to err on the side of caution and leave at least 6 full frames of honey.
If you find there are not enough honey frames for the Winter period, you will need to feed your bees. Feeding should start in late Autumn, preferably before the bees form their Winter cluster.
In Winter, the bees cluster together in a tight formation surrounding the queen. The cluster is usually located in the hive center and is designed to keep the queen and the brood alive by keeping them warm. Bees rotate through the cluster, moving to the center and out again, fanning their wings for warmth.
Promote Honey Production
Feed the colony sugar syrup. Dissolve 2 parts white sugar to 1 part water. Allow it to cool before placing it in the hive.
To administer the sugar syrup, you can use a coffee tin (or similar) filled with the syrup. Make several holes, about 1 millimeter (0.04 inches) wide across the lid, and place it upside down on top of the frames.
I usually place two rulers on the frames before inverting the tin to prevent the container to stick directly to the frames. You will need an empty super to conceal the can and the hive lid.
After three or four days (when the weather is over 18 degrees Celsius), I check to see how much sugar syrup the bees have consumed. If it’s empty, I refill or replace it with another tin.
You can also use a Ziplock bag filled with syrup and place it on the hive mat or frames directly. Using a sharp knife, scissors, or razor blade, puncture the bag to allow the syrup to ooze out. Worker bees will come up to feed.
Replace the lid and check in a few days to see if the bag needs replacing.
Feeding the colony in this manner has the advantage of preventing bees from other hives robbing the hive.
Keep in mind feeders should not be placed outside the hive. This encourages robbing by bees from other hives that could be diseased and, therefore, could spread it to your hive.
Sugar syrup is a substitute for nectar and makes low-quality honey but can be used by the bees in the short term. Honey or nectar is needed by the bees for energy, allowing them to continue to perform all their tasks.
Honey in the frames acts as insulation, too, keeping the brood warm.
Shutting Down the Hive For Winter
Your climate will determine when to close your hive for Winter. If you are unsure about when and how to do this, talk with your local beekeeping club members about what they do. They will be happy to advise you.
A tall hive with three or four boxes is too many for the colony to maintain warmth during the Winter. The queen does not lay as many eggs because there would be too many bees to feed and not enough flowers in bloom to feed them.
When you are confident that your hive has enough honey stores, on a warm Autumn day, reduce the hive down to one or two boxes and replace the hive mat (if using one) and lid.
Place the frames from the super into individual plastic bags and secure them with tape. Place them in the freezer for two days to kill wax moth or other larvae, then put them in an airtight storage container.
Winter is the time for hardware maintenance too. Tasks such as repairing or rewiring frames, cleaning, and painting supers can be undertaken. Take an inventory of existing hardware before you decide to purchase extra equipment. This should all be done in preparation for Spring.
Unless the temperature is above 18 degrees Celsius (64 degrees Fahrenheit), the hive should not be opened for very long, if at all.
You will find the different seasons in the year call for various tasks. Coming into the Spring season, there will be many tasks to perform, especially during the first inspection, when the hive has not been examined for weeks or even months.
The inspection’s main aim is to check on the strength and health of the colony and see if it is ready for the Spring honey flow.
Not only does the health of the hive need attention, but the hive components, including the base and lid, should also be maintained and cleaned.
Allow a warm day, with little to no wind to conduct the first inspection. Subsequent inspections during the Spring and Summer can be less thorough but will keep you aware of the health of your bee colony.
Coming into Autumn and Winter, the central jobs will focus on securing the colony’s survival during the cold months. Getting the hive ready for Winter starts during Autumn before the weather turns cold and the bees form their Winter cluster.
Vigilant and practical beekeeping during this time will ensure your hive will survive Winter and be ready to thrive during the Spring.