The first thing to understand in colony management is the annual cycle of the colony in your location. This is absolutely crucial for beekeeping, and it varies regionally and micro-regionally. For example, northerly climates at high altitude have a much shorter foraging period than southerly climates at sea level. And in northerly climates, a hive placed in a shaded gulley near a stream will have a harder time in winter and develop slower in the spring but will likely do better in a drought.
Your local climate has its own foraging season, and it is crucial you learn it. This directly drives your colony's annual expansion and contraction cycle. The image below (from our Hive Inspection Guide) shows the typical cycle for the Northen Willamette Valley in Oregon. In the top half you can see the colony activity typical of each phase, and below it you can see the commensurate beekeeping tasks. Once you understand this for your location, you have taken the first step to becoming a beekeeper.
On the lower part of Figure 2, you can see there are colony management tasks throughout the year. We review them briefly below:
1. Preparing: If you are planning to buy a nucleus colony, you will need to prepare by getting a hive box, a site for the bees, equipment and protective clothing.
2. Feeding: Your nucleus colony will need feeding. We recommend both sugar syrup and pollen substitute for spring. Part 2 of this series gives detailed descriptions of feeding options. You should feed until the nectar flow is strong enough that the colony ignores the feed.
2. Colony Inspections: Most beginning beekeepers don't know how often to inspect or even how to inspect. Even highly experienced beekeepers can get it wrong. This topic is beyond the scope of this blog, but our Hive Inspection Guide gives a good summary of the basics. In this guide, we outline a three-tier inspection approach, with the basic idea that hive inspections can range from nonintrusive to highly intrusive. It is important to build skills in nonintrusive inspection. It will make you a better beekeeper, and will reduce the negative impact on the colony caused by excessive intrusive inspections. Below is our suggested inspection frequency for the Willamette Valley. Although necessarily oversimplified because so many factors influence inspection frequency, it is a useful framework from which you will likely deviate.
Colony expansion and Swarm Management: As your colony expands, you will likely need to add a second brood box to reduce the chance of swarming. Aim for adding the second box when the first is about 70% full. An experienced beekeeper can manage with a single brood box by doing colony splits. They make new colonies by selectively removing brood frames of strong colonies to reduce crowding and to suppress the swarming instinct of the source hive. However, we don't recommend this for first-year beekeepers
The graphic below shows a nominal colony expansion that might fit a nucleus colony acquired in April. If this were an overwintered colony, it might be more advanced by a month or more. Note the varroa mite expansion that follows on the coattails of the colony expansion. We will discuss this more later.
When your second brood box is drawn out (filled with comb), you can add a honey super if you want to. For a new colony in the Willamette Valley, this might not be until late May/early June, as the colony spends significant resources on building out the empty frames in your new hive. This means the colony has little time to produce surplus honey, so don't expect much if any. Your main goal regarding honey in the first year is not to harvest but to ensure there is enough honey stored in the brood chamber for winter survival.
For the Willamette Valley, we recommend removing honey supers in early August. This has two benefits. It is a great time to do a mite treatment, while the varroa mite load is near its peak. It also gives the colony time to add some winter stores before the nectar flow is depleted. Don't be greedy about this. Give the bees a chance to prepare for winter.
In the Willamette Valley, everything changes by early August. The colony has switched modes and is now preparing for winter in earnest. You will notice the colony starts to become more defensive, their comb building declines, and their propolising accelerates to seal up the hive for winter. If you have not removed your honey supers, do so right away. You might get a little more honey by leaving them on, but the declining nectar flow is best left for the colony to store in preparation for winter.
This is also the time of robbing yellow jackets and robbing honeybees. These raids can be devastatingly intense. Weak hives will not be able to withstand them, and even moderately strong hives can be overwhelmed. You need to avoid any external feeding such as boardman (entrance) feeders, or open bee-yard feeding. Reduce entrances, and consider robbing entrances.
Pest and Disease Management: This is another large and complex topic that we cover in another blog, and in our Hive Inspection Guide. Plan to treat your colonies for mites at least two times a year and maybe three.
We have a separate tutorial on this topic, but here is a short summary of the basics. One topic that beekeeping books don't mention much is the failure rate of colonies over winter. In reality, you don't control your colony; you can only steer its winter survival rate by providing appropriate support. For a colony to survive winter, it must have strong winter bees, which are raised in the autumn. This means, the autumn-time colony must have a low mite load, a queen that is laying a good brood pattern that is declining at an appropriate rate, plenty of winter stores, and some type of insulation.
Winter Bee Longevity: While all of these factors are important, the mite load is perhaps the one that most often trips up beekeepers, because its consequences are so pervasive. Mite load reduces longevity of winter bees, which are crucial to colony survival. We will discuss this more in a separate blog in Varroa mites. The key point here is to check your colony mite load routinely, and assume you will need to treat in the August-November time frame.
Insulation: The most important insulation is at the top of the hive. This can be done by various means, but we prefer a Vivaldi Board, and a deep roof. This combination provides enough top space for heat retention, moisture management, and top feeding ability with a dry food such as fondant or Drivert sugar, or one of the candy board recipes. You can also insulate the walls with Styrofoam panels, Bee Cozys or coroplast panels.
Winter Bee Cozies are a great insulation option.
Winter Feeding: When we are short on time, we feed our bees Drivert sugar directly through the top of the Vivaldi Screen. You can also feed fine granulated sugar this way, too, but it relies on enough moisture being absorbed by the sugar for the bees to eat it.
However, our preferred winter-feeding method is our own fondant patties, using our own recipe. Rather than making fondant with regular sugar by heating it to around 240F and beating it into a fondant, we use Drivert fondant sugar, which can make fondant directly, without any heating or beating. We like to add a little pollen powder, lemongrass oil and apple cider vinegar. We make them Vivaldi- Screen size, as below. (Caution: If you are heating up regular granulated sugar to make a fondant, and mix in some vinegar, there is a risk of formation of hydroxymethylfurfural (HMF), which is highly toxic to bees. Making a Drivert-based fondant that contains vinegar has less risk of HMF, since the mixture does not need to be heated.)
Even with all this preparation, winter losses can be significant. Don't beat yourself up if you lose a colony over winter. The main thing is to try to learn from the loss and do better next season. Beekeeping is a long game. This is why it is so important to learn how to do colony splits in the spring to make up for these losses. To learn more about this topic, see our blogs on colony splits.