spring management

An especially early vernal equinox

As the vernal equinox approaches, I like to remind beekeepers that spring can be tricky. If you’re not paying attention, it’s easy to lose a colony to starvation.

In spring, several different things happen all at once to overwintered colonies. Most experienced beekeepers know what to look for, but it can be a little overwhelming if this is your first spring as a beekeeper.

Your colony is growing

Most colonies go into winter with plenty of honey, and the bees eat their supply as the winter progresses. But after the winter solstice, the queens begin to lay at an ever-increasing rate, making the colony larger. More bees require more food, so the remaining food is consumed faster and faster.

Such irony. As we approach spring, the food stores are at their lowest level just as the number of bees increases dramatically. In the past, many colonies have fought their way through winter winds, freezing temperatures, increasing pathogens, and long hours of darkness only to die of starvation just days before the first nectar flow. Don’t make this mistake! If you have any doubts about their food supply, check on your bees soon.

Feeding frequency

If your bees didn’t have sufficient honey for the entire winter, you may have already begun feeding them on a regular schedule. If you have been feeding once every two weeks, for example, you may need to increase that to once a week or even more. I can’t emphasize enough that if the colony is healthy, its food requirement will explode. Check your colony for food.

Don’t confuse pollen with nectar

That sounds silly, right? But just because you see early spring bees bringing in loads of pollen, you shouldn’t assume they are also collecting nectar. Lots of plants, especially trees, shed gallons of spring pollen without producing a drop of nectar. It’s easy, especially as a beginner, to see load after yellow load of pollen coming in and assume all is well. Check your colony for food.

Warmth is deceiving

It’s easy to be lulled into complacency by warm breezes. On warm spring days when the sun is out, so are the bees. They zip around the bee yard, looking robust, but it may be an illusion. They can’t eat warmth and sunshine. So even though it makes them playful, don’t assume they have enough. Check your colony for food.

Starvation is on us

So many bee ailments are hard to control. Mites, viruses, brood diseases, temperature extremes, predators, and pesticides are difficult-to-control moving targets. Even experienced beekeepers can fail to manage all the assaults on their bees. But starvation is different. Starvation is easy to avoid and food management falls squarely on the shoulders of the beekeepers. So by now, you know: Check your colony for food.

The early vernal equinox

The year, the spring (or vernal) equinox occurs on March 19. Apparently, this is the earliest it has arrived in over a hundred years. As I’ve lamented in the past, the worst aspect of the spring equinox is its proximity to the summer solstice. In other words, the spring equinox is the halfway point of the lengthening-day cycle. Only three months later, on June 20, the days will begin to get shorter and your bees will start preparing for winter.

Honey Bee Suite

An early vernal equinox this year. Lots of early spring trees provide pollen with no nectar. Picture showing pollen catkins.
Lots of early trees produce pollen with no nectar. Image by atrix9 from Pixabay

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  • Rusty – Exceptional advice. Here all 3 nucs and our main hive survived winter. In getting ready for spring we moved a hive yesterday. That hive was as light as a feather. Without opening the hive it is certain there no honey in the hive – nada, it is empty. It would be so easy for this hive to starve out before the nectar flow. However, it is equipped as all here are with feeder frames that have allowed food stores (sugar cakes) to be monitored continually through winter.

    Everything you discuss is happening. Bee numbers are increasing and sugar cakes going fast. I’m checking every other day. Feeder frames work perfectly. I’ve used them to slip in not only sugar but pieces of pollen patty – which are also being consumed rapidly. They jump on them in seconds. Your comments about numbers increasing at this time explains a lot and why so easy for a hive to starve-out. “Check colony food”

    • Ron,

      It varies according to region, but here on the Pacific Northwest coast, the common one is alder. The pollen flow starts early and is creamy yellow. Other trees in the same family, such as birch, hazel, and hornbeam also shed pollen from their catkins but don’t produce nectar.

  • I live in the Seattle area. 1st year beek. today I checked for food stores, there was about 1/8th candy board left and I added a gallon of sugar syrup to the feeder. They were building comb, with a bunch of new comb attached to the top of frames and bottom of quilt box. Is it too early to pull off the quilt box and add another medium?

    • Tina,

      As long as we have cold nights, you will continue to get lots of condensation. Why not add another medium under the quilt box?

  • Thanks so helpful to be reminded about food stores and when to think about seeing food supplies in the hive again thank you.?????❤️❤️❤️❤️

    • Terri, I fought SO-OO hard to avoid writing “So…do ya think I should check my colonies for food?”

      I don’t know whether to feel good about being stronger than you. Or whether to kick myself for letting someone else take the cheap shot.

  • Rusty,

    I’m in Illinois and am wondering how I put the queen excluder back on my hive? I have the lower deep, a super of honey, an empty super that I put an open bag of sugar in and then the insulated super with the inner and outer covers on top. Does the queen typically lay brood in the super above the deep that they’ve been eating out of all winter?
    Thank you for your guidance!

  • Bravo! Very sound advice. I ramp up the feeding every year at this time. Have to. Its Maine.

  • Spot on as usual Rusty!

    My busiest hive had eaten through all but about a tablespoon of the sugar in their round top feeder.

    I replenished it with sugar – too many girls in the feeder to give them anything too wet. Hopefully the sugar will feed them well enough that they will get out of the feeder so I can add something more moist like sugar syrup or candy.

    Thanks for the reminder!

  • hi Rusty,

    My beekeeper buddy and I tried again this year. Checked the hives a few days ago, So far, better than the last couple of years, 3 full of dead bees, but one hive looks pretty good. Gonna call him to see what he wants to do for feed.

    Tough to get a hive to overwinter here in Minnesota, a combo of harsh winters and bees bought from Texas I suspect.

  • I’m just not sure. In northern Illinois, 5 out of 7 days it is 50 degrees plus during the day. However nighttime temps are between 30 and 34 degrees. Should I feed my bees?

    • Hi Theresa,

      Honestly, the temperature has little to do with it. You need to see if your bees have enough food. If they do, you don’t need to feed them. If they don’t, then you do. It’s really that simple. The only way you can know is by looking.

  • My beekeeper buddy came out Sunday, added a feeder frame and a few 1 pound honey jars and a couple of pollen patties. The girls were quite active and sent for the grub within seconds.

  • Flying in and out can be hunger desperation. Don’t be fooled: I was last spring. Put a bag of sugar into a clear plastic bag, cut a 2 or 3-inch hole out of the underside and put it over the feed hole. You can see what is going on through the plastic if you leave a small gap in the centre of the sugar. Insulate well over the whole crown board.

  • Hi Rusty,

    I’m in Vermont. At what temp can I open my hive to check? The other day it got up to 50 and the girls were flying but most days are still in the 30s. I have a medium super and a candy board on top of my top deep box. Thanks.

  • Regarding opening the hive, I read in an article, a very good point. If you open a hive when it’s too cold to check and there is enough food, some bees may perish, however, if you don’t and there is no food all the bees will perish.

  • Here in the frozen north, we usually don’t feed in spring unless we see an emergency. Our preference is to feed them up in the fall so they have plenty of stores to last until the pollen starts coming in (April where I live). I winter in double 10 frame deeps, and I like to see them at 100-120 lb when I wrap them up around December 1. Michael Palmer, in a much colder Vermont, asks for 130-140 lb.

  • I am in Northern Virginia. We had an incredibly mild winter and my hive made it through and seems to be quite strong. I fed the bees throughout the winter with fondant using a combo quilt/feeder box. Yesterday when I opened the hive, there was a lot of comb formed in the feeder section and covered with bees. I smoked well and then removed the quilt/feeder box (I left it near the hive opening so the bees could return to the hive) and added a super with 10 frames. In examining the comb in the feeder this morning, I noticed that, in addition to honey in the comb, there were larvae as well. Not all that many – maybe 50. However, now I am concerned that I might have displaced the queen when I removed the quilt/feeder box. I didn’t even think that she would be up that high in the hive. I guess I will need to wait for another nice day and see if I can spot her in the lower boxes.

  • I’m a new beek. Just put in 2 pkts of Italian honey bees on March 27. One hive they have absconded (learned too late about the queen excluder). The other hive appears well. They are building comb and we can see eggs in some of the cells. Today when we were watching the bees we saw two instances of one bee killing another. The first time they were fighting at the entrance. The dead bee dropped to the tray and they brought it inside. The second time the dead bee dropped to the ground and the other bee flew off. Please advise.

    • Tammy,

      Fighting at or near the entrance is usually due to bees coming from other hives and trying to steal provisions from your colony. If you are feeding syrup, for example, that would be enough to attract other bees. If it persists, consider using a robbing screen.

  • Thank you. I didn’t see any fighting today so maybe the problem is solved. There were 6 dead bees out in front of the hive this morning. I will keep a watch again tomorrow.

  • Tammy, a robust hive at this time has about 10K bees +/-. usually bees will leave the hive and die, but some will die in the hive. The workers will take the dead out and scatter them around, but if it’s cold they will leave them right outside the hive. It’s normal to see a few dead on the landing board or close to the hive. Dead bees will attract predators so the workers try to hide them.

  • This was the second winter with my bees. They did not survive due to our very harsh winter we had. They had lots of food left. My question is: I treated with Formic acid in late summer slow release for the required time, there was still lots of honey left can the honey be consumed by human or fed to my new bees coming?

  • New beekeeper a little north of Everett, WA. So happy to have found your site. Thank you for all your wonderful information! Used your no-cook sugar board made with the queen reducer and the pollen patties, bees ate about half of it…just wondering when I should remove it?

    • Martin,

      I took mine off about a week ago, as soon as the maples began blooming. So I would say that as long as your bees have some days warm and dry enough to fly, you can remove them.

  • Thank you so much! Trying to do the right thing for my bees… I just have one 8 frame hive and one on the way in a couple weeks. I had a swarm last year with my first hive and had to start over with a new queen. They made it through the winter. Hoping to keep them happy this year! I view your site as my bee-bible Thank you