Even seasoned beekeepers make a few spring mistakes, and for me, this year is no exception. Let me set the scene: It was a cloudy, misting, 58-degree early spring morning. The warmer temps meant I’d finally swapped out the deer sled for the utility vehicle to make my rounds in the bee yards. The engine started on the first try and seemed to be running well on its initial journey this year. Things were looking pretty good.
The weather app on my phone said I had a scant hour and a half to finish before the real storm front made its way through. I had on my old leather boots, some rain gear and a bee veil. Two 40-pound boxes of protein patties were balanced on my lap. My bee smoker and hive tool were in one hand, the steering wheel in the other.
I’d made it through the first set of stands and was on my way to the second when it happened: I started sliding and, as I slid, the deeper into the mud I went. Well, so much for my seven-year streak of not rutting up the road.
Mother Nature Keeps Spring Interesting for Beekeepers
It happens, even to those of us who think we have beekeeping all figured out. No matter how well prepared you are, there are those days when Mother Nature just decides to throw you a curveball. That’s what happened to me that spring morning: I was flat-out stuck, buried up to the wheel wells in mud.
After half an hour of sweating, pulling, lifting and pushing, I looked like I had just finished a summertime mud volleyball tournament — but finally I got myself dug out. I headed off to the next set of stands and, thankfully, was finished and back to the garage before the storms came rolling in.
Beekeepers, like any other professional or hobbyist, have to overcome many obstacles each year. For me, the first one this season was getting dug out of the mud. However, it could have been any number of issues. In this article, I’ll cover some of the more common spring mistakes I’ve made in the past and what beekeepers can do to avoid them.
Common Spring Errors
I’ve made my share of spring mistakes since I started with a few hives 22 years ago. Thankfully, I’ve learned how to avoid making most of them over the years.
Not Feeding Enough in Early Spring
The first of the spring mistakes I learned to avoid is starvation, caused by not feeding enough early in the season. As a new beekeeper, I figured the bees had plenty of resources to make it through until the first black locust trees came into bloom. Boy, was I wrong. Instead of catching my limit of largemouth up the creek on the backwaters of the old Mississippi, I should have spent my time feeding a mixture of 1:1 syrup and pollen substitute.
Not Testing for or Treating Varroa
The second mistake that comes to mind is not testing or treating early enough in the season for Varroa mites. Black locust is our first flow here in the midwestern part of the state and one of my favorite honeys. In the past, trying to catch this flow while properly timing mite treatments proved difficult.
When I started keeping bees, Apistan and Checkmite were the two new kids on the block. While effective, the duration of these treatments made supering for the flow almost impossible. Most beekeepers opted to cut treatments in half or skipped them all together to avoid contaminated honey.
Modern Varroa Treatment Options
Fortunately, two springtime treatments are now available that can be used in conjunction with the nectar flow. Mite Away Quick Strips and the newer Formic Pro are formic acid treatments manufactured by NOD Apiaries out of Canada. While both can be used once daytime highs are steadily in the 50’s, Mite Away Quick Strips are a 7-day treatment and Formic Pro takes 14 days. Simply place two pads between the brood boxes. After treatment, if the bees haven’t carried the delivery pads out the front entrance, you can remove them by hand.
If you still have a few weeks until the first flow in your area, another option is using a half dose of Apiguard. By cutting the full 50-gram dose down to 25 grams, you can treat two or three times before the flow gets going. Apiguard works best when temps are in the low 60’s up to 100 degrees.
Another treatment beekeepers report works well is oxalic acid, using either the vaporization or dribble method. Treatments with oxalic acid are applied when temperatures are above 50 degrees and the bees are active. For those who want to really hammer the mites Apivar, an amitraz treatment, works very well. However, the downside to using this method in the spring is the duration: treatment takes 42 days with no supers in place.
Not Treating European or American Foulbrood Early Enough
Another early spring mistake I have made in the past is not reacting quickly enough when a brood disease breaks out. I’m not a fan of the “burn your hive if you have European Foulbrood” mandate that some beekeepers promote. I know this is a sore subject, but I prefer to treat with antibiotics when tests show positive for EFB.
American Foulbrood, however, is another story. Burn that sucker down as quick as you can if your hives test positive for AFB. If you suspect either form of the disease, contact your local state inspector to help verify any brood disease or send samples to the USDA Bee Research Laboratory in Beltsville, MD right away.
Not Having Extra Hives Ready for Swarms, Nucs, Splits or Package Bees
When I first started out, I worked hard to increase my numbers any way possible. Some years, I found myself with more bees than I had room for. These days, I paint four or five additional complete hives so they’re ready to go for those unexpected swarm calls. Every spring it seems we get four or five calls a week from folks who need help getting a swarm of bees down from an unexpected place.
Make sure you have your boxes ready ahead of these calls so you can quickly transfer them into their new home. Same goes for package bees, nucs, or splits. Take the time to prepare extra hive equipment now before you need it — you’ll be happy you did.
Not Rotating Boxes in Spring
Last but certainly not least is the rotation of your boxes. I’ve made the mistake of not reversing brood boxes in the spring when I should have. This left the queen up above while the box below remained empty.
A good rule of thumb to follow is to reverse in the spring and late summer if needed. This helps provide additional room for the queen to lay, thereby increasing the colony’s population for the first nectar flow.
Have a Great Spring!
I certainly hope my notes here are helpful to you. If you have any advice for fellow beekeepers from your years working the hives, let us know on the Dadant & Sons Facebook Page.
Best of luck in avoiding these spring mistakes, and I look forward to talking to you again in early summer.
For beekeeping equipment and educational materials, visit our online store.