For beekeepers spring can be a time to count your losses, and rebuild

Spring beehive cleaning often includes clearing out the bees that didn't make it through the winter.

Spring beehive cleaning often includes clearing out the bees that didn't make it through the winter.

Spring is nature’s way to renew itself, and bees are no different. By springtime, the honey stores bees feed on are dwindling along with the numbers of bees, which means there’s much to do to prepare for summer.

A sad truth about keeping bees is that many of them do not overwinter successfully. This year in the Willamette Valley, Oregon, hive losses have so far been estimated at over 50 percent, up from 35 percent three years ago. I lost two of my three colonies. I blame my losses on Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) in one case and the loss of the queen bee in the other. When I saw bees bringing pollen in and out of my remaining hive, I was relieved and delighted.

The way bees survive the cold winter, when they do, is to spend most of their time in the hive. But they’re not hibernating - far from it. Beehives are open to the outside air thanks to a screened bottom, so bees must spend enough energy inside the hive to maintain a remarkable 92 degrees Fahrenheit around the queen. They cluster around her, moving their wings and bodies enough to generate enough heat for her to survive. And like the emperor penguins, when the bees on the outside of the cluster get too cold, they change places with the inside bees, or die.

Revive your old bees

The first thing I did after inspecting my surviving hive was do some spring cleaning. For the good of the bees, this can only be done on a sunny day when the temperature is higher than 60 degrees.

Working quickly, I disassembled the hive and cleaned out all the dead bees on the bottom screen. Since I have a smaller colony this year I had to cut back on the number of boxes they live in, in this case from four to two. Over the winter the colony had moved its cluster over to the east side of the hive because water seeped in on the west side. Moisture is worse for bees than cold so I replaced the damaged box and repositioned the frames inside the new box to recenter the cluster.

Alison Evans' homemade bait box just before the bees arrived.

Alison Evans' homemade bait box just before the bees arrived.

Finally, I had to make sure my bees have plenty of honey in their top box to sustain them through the rainy spring months. If you find you don’t have enough honey to feed your bees I recommend giving them sugar syrup in a feeder.

Feeders come in many styles. My favorite is one made by Mann Lake. I find fewer drowned bees in this feeder than in any other style, and I’ve tried them all. Plus it fits comfortably on top of the hive under the inner cover, so it’s easy to fill without disturbing my bees.

I make the thick syrup by mixing two parts sugar to one part water and warming it just enough to dissolve the sugar, and no higher. (Burned sugar contains toxins.) Cool your sugar solution before adding it to the feeder, and check every few days to replenish as needed. Refill your feeder for as long as your bees eat it.

How to add new bees

I’d like to build my population back to three colonies. To add new bees, many beekeepers buy packages of bees by the pound. I prefer not to do this because the bees sold here are generally from California, and not as well adapted to our cool, wet climate as locally bred bees. I’ve got another couple of options:

Split the hive. I noticed a new queen in my surviving hive which the bees must have produced after the old queen got sick, injured, or died. If I’m lucky and she’s a very fertile queen, it’s possible I’ll be able to split this hive in the coming months.

A split is made by removing two or three frames of brood from the original, healthy colony and putting it in a new box, also called a super, along with bees, empty frames and honey frames. The bees in the new super will quickly set about creating a queen by adding enzymes and royal jelly to a cell containing an egg that's less than four days old.

The same bait box with the swarm Alison caught. The bees went inside.

The same bait box with the swarm Alison caught. The bees went inside.

Catch a swarm. Another option, if that doesn’t work, is to catch a swarm. Spring is swarming season for bees, when the old queen will leave with half of the colony to seek out a new home, leaving half the bees behind with a new queen. It’s how they grow their population in nature.

Most beekeepers try to prevent swarming by making sure their hives have enough space for a growing population, but sometimes the bees just swarm anyway. When they do, because it depletes the population in the hive by 50 percent, they will produce much less honey. In any case, it is not difficult to catch a swarm and install it in a new hive, and that is what I hope to do this spring.

I learned how to do it from Tom Seeley, author of a fascinating book entitled Honeybee Democracy.

He describes how bees make a collective decision about when and where to swarm. His research informs beekeepers about the dimensions and placement that make the bait box attractive to bee. The beekeeper then loads the box with used frames that smell good to the bees, as well as a commercially produced liquid lure containing queen pheromone.

My husband and I have built and hung bait boxes on our property. Last year, we were able to catch three swarms, all of which I gave to beekeeping friends. If I’m as successful this year, I’ll be back to having three colonies in no time.

Alison Evans, a former instructor at the University of Oregon, recently completed her Master Beekeeper's Apprenticeship with the Oregon State University Extension.