Surviving Your First Season as a Beekeeper
by Dr. Dewey M. Caron — University of Delaware
Editor’s note: This is a summary of the material presented at DBA’s 2009 Short Course on beekeeping by Dr. Caron.
We might start a new colony from a package, purchase a nuc, capture a swarm, divide a colony or transfer a colony from a feral nest into movable frame equipment but our first season objective remains the same – survive the first winter!
Our stewardship the initial season is to become familiar with our new livestock. This means feeding the new colony sugar water (stop only when they stop taking our offering) so they become populous enough to collect the pollen/nectar resources they will need for the approaching winter. We might also re-queen (especially swarms and transfers) and in some seasons, even add a super to collect some surplus honey – a bonus only when we start early and the season/apiary location is especially favorable.
We start fall manipulations in August (the beginning of our beekeeping year). Some colonies may need mite control if mite sampling shows high mite numbers, which we can determine by monitoring with a sticky board or powder sugar shake (see MAAREC website, www.MAAREC.psu.edu, for tutorial and thresholds).
Colonies that are weak in adults or brood can be strengthened/combined or fed additional sugar water. If we added a super it is time to remove it – and we should at least stick our finger into some capped honey cells to taste fresh honey from our new colony.
Traditional fall management begins Labor Day (early September) when we look at brood, food and equipment condition. For best chance of winter survival our fall colony should have one or two boxes with brood and a full second or third box filled with honey. Figure 1 (from my book Honey Bee Biology and Beekeeping) illustrates the ideal fall situation for a hive of two standard Langstroth boxes (if you are using half depths the brood should be in lowest two boxes and a top (third) box needs to be filled with honey).
If on Labor Day you do not see this, you need to begin to feed a heavy sugar syrup (get as much sucrose sugar into solution as possible) – for package bees (packages from California for example or late colony starts or in areas with poor nectar resources in the fall) ) this might entail considerable feeding – so you need to start early.
As winter progresses, the colony will use their honey resource to generate enough heat to survive as they gather in a cluster. They move upward so the cluster and moves into the top box. With increasing day length the queen will start laying more eggs to populate her colony. We can peek in the overwintering unit and see if they need emergency feeding with dry sugar or sugar cake. Otherwise leave them alone.
Spring will be our busy season as we seek to bolster weak colonies, keep strong units from swarming and then add supers (but that is a tale for another Short Course). The main effort should be to get the first season colony through the winter to have an opportunity to continue to build bee management skills.
Good luck with your first season of beekeeping!