4. Spring Management: Starting with Bees
When and How to Start
Spring is the ideal time to begin keeping bees. In the Midwest the best months for this are April and May, depending oil the slate or location, and when fruit trees, dandelions, and early flowers are in bloom. The reasons for starting at this time are that the spring blossoms and the lengthening days help to get the bees off to a good start and the early start allows the colony to increase its population in time to store honey from the clovers and other major food sources that begin to yield nectar usually in June, but varying widely.
A beginning beekeeper should start with at least two colonies but not more than four or five. With more than one colony you have the advantage of being able to exchange brood, bees, and combs in case one of the colonies needs some help. With too many colonies you may have only enough time to keep them supplied with supers, and not be able to enjoy learning the details of the activities in any of them. The beginner can purchase established colonies from a local beekeeper but should do so with care. Hives offered for sale may be homemade, with poor combs and, sometimes, the bees may be diseased. There is nothing wrong with good homemade equipment built to proper dimensions, but hive bodies and frames made without regard for the proper bee space are worthless. The amount of honey in the hive that ),on buy is not as important as the quality of the equipment as long the there is at least a small reserve supply. The bees themselves can be improved at slight expense by requeening the colony. Buy established colonies only after they ]lave been inspected and found free of disease by a qualified apiary inspector. Such inspections are usually available on request from your state Department of Agriculture.
If you buy full-sized colonies, you will lose the opportunity to watch the fascinating early development of the colony that you have if you buy package bees or small "nucleus" colonies of three to five frames. Also, newly established small colonies are easier for the beginner to observe and manipulate than are the larger ones. In part, this is because of the beginner's reaction to the number of bees present and also because of the greater number of guard bees and field bees in the larger colony. They are not necessarily meaner, but more bees react when large colonies are handled. Consider this difference when you begin keeping bees because it is essential that you open the hive regularly and learn about the inside activities of the colony.
Package bees (Fig. 25) consist of 2 to 4 pounds of bees and a laying queen shipped in a screened cage with a can of sugar syrup to provide food en route. They are produced in commercial apiaries in the southeastern United States and in California. Order them early, in January if possible, in order to have the best chance of receiving them on time, preferably during early fruit and dandelion bloom in your area. A 2-pound package with a queen will produce as good a colony as a 3-pound package if it is fed well and gets off to a good, early start on drawn combs. However, for installation on foundation, a 3-pounder is usually a better choice. Packages hived on frames filled with foundation must be fed continually with sugar syrup until their combs are completed and there is stored honey in the combs. This may require a month or more if nectar is not available because of lack of bloom or poor spring weather. The food is a good investment because it is used to produce wax for comb building and to feed developing young bees. Any excess is stored for future use in the colony. Without such food the bees may fail to build comb and may die. Use syrup made from two volumes of granulated, white beet or cane sugar dis- solved in one volume of hot water. This ratio of sugar to water is used most economically by the bees. However, thinner syrup of equal vol- umes of sugar and water can also be used. A gallon can or large jar placed above the brood nest makes a better feeder than the entrance type. The colony will reduce its intake or refuse syrup altogether when nectar becomes readily available to them. Wash and exchange feeders regularly so that the syrup does not become fer- mented or contaminated by the growth of fungus or other organisms.
A 2-pound package of bees. (Fig. 25)
Package bee colonies develop more rapidly when installed on combs containing honey and pollen. They can be started a little earlier in the season because of the pollen that is available immediately for rearing brood. The beginner usually has no choice but to start with foundation the first year. In subsequent years, however, install packages on combs if at all possible.
Package bees usually are shipped with instructions for placing them in the hive. The bees are not difficult to handle if you remember some important fundamental details. A complete one-story hive must be ready to accept the bees and a location must have been chosen for it. When the package arrives, put it in a dark, cool place such as a base- ment until you can install the bees in the hive, preferably the same day. If you must delay the job, check to see that there is still syrup in the feeder can in the package. With plenty of food the bees can be kept in the package for a day or two if necessary. Late afternoon or evening is the best time to install them so that the bees will settle down quickly without flying very much. When you are ready to start, place the cage on its side and spray, sprinkle, or brush warm sugar syrup on the side of the screened cage. Use only as much syrup as the bees will clean up readily. Do not soak them with it. When the bees are gorged with syrup they are gentler and less inclined to fly and sting.
When you are ready to install the bees, put on your veil, get your hive tool, and place the hive on location with five frames set to one side of it. A smoker is rarely needed but you should have it ready. Also have the cover and the equipment ready to feed the bees after they are installed. Stuff the hive entrance lightly with green grass or reduce its size with an entrance cleat. Loosen the cover of the package but do not remove it. The queen cage is usually beside the syrup can at the top of the package or hanging by a wire or tin strip below the can. Give the package a sharp bounce on the ground to knock the bees to the floor. Remove the syrup can and queen cage and replace the cover over the hole. Expose the white candy in the queen cage by removing the cork or other covering from the small hole in the candy-filled end of the cage. Then wedge the cage, candy-end up, between two frames in the center of the frames in the hive. Bounce the cage again and pour the bees into the empty space in the hive, shaking the cage back and forth to dislodge the bees and to get them out of the cage (Fig. 26). You may have to repeat this procedure several times until no more bees will come out. Leave the cage beside the hive entrance overnight with the hole beside the entrance and touching the bottom board. If the queen cage contains only a queen and no candy, or if you want to use the fast-release method, shake the bees into the box as described above. Then sprinkle syrup on the queen cage to wet the queen and prevent her from flying. Hold the queen cage down in the hive, remove the screen, and drop the queen among the bees. When the queen is in, quickly but gently replace the frames in the hive and put the feeder in place. Whatever method you use to introduce the queen, leave the hive alone for at least 5 days, except to refill the feeder if needed. Then, on a warm afternoon, take a brief look at the colony. Use only a little smoke and handle the bees and equipment gently. Look primarily for eggs and larvae that indicate the queen has been accepted and is laying. Remove the queen cage after checking it to be sure it no longer contains the queen. Close the hive quietly after checking the syrup supply. Any colony without a queen should be given another one without delay to avoid losing the entire colony.
Another way to start is to purchase a nucleus, a complete small colony. A nucleus, with three to five frames of brood, bees, and a queen, compares in price with package bees and has the advantage of having developing bees that will quickly increase the size of the colony. In purchasing nuclei locally, be sure they are from colonies that have been inspected for disease. Nuclei may carry a flat price or, sometimes, a lower price that requires an exchange of an equal number of frames of foundation. The frames of brood and bees can be placed into your prepared equipment. The colony will need incoming nectar or sugar syrup until all its combs are completed.
Other sources of bees
Honey bee colonies, together with their combs, can be transferred from a tree or house into a modern hive. However, because of the amount of work involved and the difficulty of obtaining good combs, you should avoid this method of obtaining bees unless you have no alternative. Swarms also can be used to establish your first colony or to provide additional new colonies for your apiary. They are not usually available as early in the season as package bees, which are more suitable for an early spring start. Most swarms contain old queens that should be replaced during the summer.
Shaking a package of bees into the hive. (Fig. 26)
Location and Arrangement of Colonies
The location and arrangement of an apiary is important to the bees, to the owner of the bees, and to the people and animals close-by. Bees are affected by the exposure of the ]live in relation to wind, sun, and the surface oil which the hive is placed. Protecting hives from prevailing winds, especially in winter, will result in stronger colonies. Hives should be located so that the still hits them at least in the morning and early afternoon. In the Midwest, colonies are rarely damaged by being in full sun, but afternoon shade is beneficial. With shaded ]lives, the bees may forage better because fewer bees are required to cool the hive and to carry water for evaporation. Reflected beat from around the ]live also affects the colony. Grass or other ground covers reflect less heat than exposed soil. Asphalt areas or tarred roofs are not suitable sites for hives. Never place colonies in low areas subject to flooding or where water stands after heavy rains.
Traditionally, hives in apiaries have always been arranged in straight rows. It is much better to place the hives in some irregular pattern so that field bees are more likely to return to their own colonies. With hives in a straight row, foragers drift to the end hives and increase their populations at the expense of the colonies in the center of the rows. For convenience, the hives can be arranged in pairs about 6 inches apart. Pairs of hives can be separated from one another by several feet. A semicircle or U- shaped arrangement reduces drifting and makes it easy to handle the colonies with a hive loader.
Flowering plants within about a mile of the colony are important to its success. A good apiary location should have spring nectar and pollen plants as well as plants that provide the main nectar source later in the year. Ornamental trees and shrubs provide early pollen and nectar for bees in or near cities and towns. As a result the colonies develop faster than in areas of open framland. Later in the season a farm-based colony may have the advantage of more clovers and other crops that produce nectar. Remember this difference if you have to choose between two locations. Also consider the possibility of moving hives to take advantage of different areas with more available nectar and pollen plants. There is a saying that good locations make good beekeepers. Commercial beekeepers must seek and test new locations regularly (Fig. 27).
When locating the hives, you also need to consider the conditions under which you will have to work with the bees. just keeping the bees in a sunny spot will help because they will be easier to handle if the colony is warm and flying well. Don't put hives under a tree or in similar spots where you cannot stand comfortably to open them. Since you will manipulate the hives from the side, leave space on at least one side for standing and for handling equipment. You will enjoy the bees most if you look within the hive regularly - at least weekly in good weather. For this reason, keep hives as close to home as possible where you can observe them readily. Obviously, not everyone can keep several colonies in the backyard, but you are more likely to find the time to master them if they are close-by.
A final consideration in locating your colony is an important one. Bees can be a nuisance in several ways wherever they are kept. However, you can reduce or prevent problems by planning ahead. Bees are liable to sting people and animals in the vicinity of their hive and in the flight path between it and the plants they visit. To offset this tendency, try to screen the hive or apiary to make the bees fly above the heads of passersby. Bees also spot cars, clothing, and buildings in the vicinity of the hive by releasing their body wastes in flight. Spotting from a single colony is not serious but several colonies flying largely in one direction may make a car or a house unsightly in a short time. When nectar is not available bees cause problems by visiting sources of water such as water faucets, children's wading pools, and bird baths. Once they become accustomed to a watering place, they will continue to use it all during the flying season. Water must always be available close to the hives, starting the day a colony is established or moved. Provide a tank or pan with something in it on which the bees can land. Cork floats or crushed rock can be used for this purpose. A hose or faucet dripping onto a board or cement slab is also suitable.
An excellent apiary location. (Fig. 27)
Handling the Colony
The beginner with bees is naturally reluctant at first to spend much time looking at the colony within the hive and is usually a little overcautious about handling the bees and about damaging the colony. With proper clothing and equipment there is no reason to hesitate. And don't worry about the colony - it can be damaged far more by neglect than by too much attention.
If you have been stung by a bee without more effect than the usual swelling, you have little to worry about in handling a colony. A few people, however, react strongly to bee stings and may have trouble breathing; they may even go into shock or unconsciousness. When this happens the person should be taken immediately to a doctor for treatment with adrenalin (epinephrine). The effect of a bee sting can be reduced by promptly removing the sting. Scrape it off, being careful not to squeeze it and drive additional venom into the skin. When you are stung while handling bees, quickly remove the sting and smoke the spot. The smoke repels bees and covers the odor of the sting that otherwise may attract bees to sting the same spot. It is also a good idea to smoke your hands, gloves, and ankles before you begin handling a colony.
Before opening a hive, you need to light the smoker. It is essentially a firebox with a grate and a bellows. To work properly and to provide thick, cool smoke it must have coals above the grate and unburned material above them. A burlap sack cut into strips makes good smoker fuel. Rotten or pitchy wood, corn cobs, and shavings are also suitable. Light a small quantity of fuel and puff the bellows until the material flames. Add more pieces, while puffing the bellows, until the barrel of the smoker is full but not packed tightly. Once started well, a smoker will not go out when you need it. Refill it and pack it down with your hive tool as you work. Keep the smoke cool and thick.
After putting on your veil, approach the hive from the rear and work from either side. If several colonies or rows of colonies face the same direction, examine the front hive or row first so that you later work behind the disturbed colonies. Avoid jarring the hive or setting the smoker on it before opening the hive. Blow several puffs of smoke into the hive entrance and into any other hive openings such as auger holes or large cracks through which bees can crawl. The smoke repels and distracts the guard bees. Pry the cover up slowly with the hive tool, hold the edge up 2 or 3 inches, and blow several good puffs of smoke beneath it. With too much smoke you can make bees run and "boil" out of the hive. But it is better to use plenty of smoke, even too much, while you are learning to handle bees, than to use too little. You will soon learn to gauge how much is needed by observing the actions of the bees. On warm days when a nectar flow is in progress, you need very little smoke. More smoke than usual is needed in cool and cloudy weather.
Once the cover or a hive body is lifted, remove it without letting it back down in place. In this way you crush fewer bees and alarm the colony less. Place the cover, underside up, on the ground close beside you toward the rear of the hive. In this position it serves as a place to put the second story when you look at the bottom brood chamber of a two-story hive (Fig. 28). If you want to look at both hive bodies separate them, using smoke, and look at the lower one first. Otherwise many bees move to the lower body and make it harder for you to examine the combs. Smoke the bees in the top hive body before you put it back on the lower one.
Examining a two story colony of bees. The top shallow super is places on the inverted cover at the rear of the hive. (Fig. 28)
With the cover off, you should be able to see the area with the greatest number of bees, especially in a package colony or nucleus. This area is the brood nest where the queen and developing bees are located. To look at the colony, you must first loosen and remove a frame at the edge of the brood nest or, in large colonies, the first or second frame from the edge of the hive. Pry the frames apart with the straight end of the hive tool. New frames separate easily, but you may have to force older ones apart at the end bars in order to break the bits of comb and propolis holding them.
Pull the first frame slowly out of the hive, look briefly for the queen and, if she is not on the frame, set it on end against the opposite side of the hive near the entrance. If the queen is on the frame, it is better not to set the frame outside the hive where she may fall on the ground. The rest of the frames can then be examined and replaced in order. Hold the combs above the colony when looking at them, with the comb surface vertical (Fig. 29). Pollen and nectar may fall from combs held horizontally. To look at the opposite side of a comb, raise or lower one end until the top bar is vertical. Pivot the frame 180 degrees and bring the top bar back to a horizontal position. Repeat the process before replacing the comb in the hive. Put the first frame back in its original position.
One application of smoke usually lasts for several minutes. Then you may notice bees lining up along the tops of the frames looking at you. Before they decide to fly at you, give them a puff or two of smoke to drive them back down. To close the hive, smoke the bees at the top of the hive, strike the cover on the ground in front of the colony to knock off adhering bees, and lower the cover slowly into place. When putting any equipment with bees in it back together, pause slightly just before the parts touch; most of the bees will move out of the way.
The standard hive holds 10 frames with a little extra space when they are new. In a short time, additional wax and propolis make it difficult to remove the individual frames. For this reason, commercial and amateur beekeepers commonly violate the bee-space concept and use 9 frames evenly spaced in each hive body, in brood chambers as well as in honey supers. To obtain the best possible combs, you should use full hive bodies of foundation that contain 10 frames. When using mixtures of drawn comb and foundation, you may space 9 frames evenly or push them together in the center of the hive. In the latter case the frames should be spaced evenly after the bees begin to use the foundation but before they build extra comb in the spaces next to the outer frames.
Holding brood comb in a vertical position. (Fig. 29)
Colonies of bees may make better combs and survive the winter better when they have 10 frames in each brood chamber. However, before deciding on one system of management, you should test both systems in your own apiary to see which best suits both you and the bees.
What to Look for in the Colony
Above all, most beekeepers want to see the queen bee in the colony. Finding her is usually easier in a small colony than in a large one. In either case, she is sometimes elusive and may be found on the wall of the hive or on the bottom board instead of on the combs. You can find the queen most easily by smoking the colony lightly and looking quickly at all the combs within the brood nest. She is often found on a comb containing eggs, or on one with the cells that have been cleaned and are ready to receive eggs. The quality of the queen can be judged without seeing her by the pattern in which she lays her eggs in the comb. Large solid areas of sealed brood, and concentric rings of eggs and larvae of different ages are the signs of a good queen. It takes practice to recognize eggs and young larvae at the base of the cells; learn to identify them readily. (See Figure 30.) Shake the bees off a frame into the hive in order to see details in the comb more easily. You can make the bees move away from an area of comb by touching them lightly on their backs with your finger or the flat end of a hive tool.
The brood pattern should be solid, with few open or unused cells (Fig. 31). A spotted pattern may indicate that the queen had a sex allele the same as one or more of the drones with which she mated. Such a queen should be replaced. The egg-laying behavior of the queen may produce a spotted brood pattern when she does not fill all the adjoining cells with eggs. She also should be replaced. Brood diseases kill larvae and pupae and create an uneven, spotted appearance of the brood combs. As explained in the section on diseases, you must learn to detect diseases or, at least, to recognize abnormal larvae and pupae. By doing so, you will know when to ask for help in identifying the disease, or you may be able to diagnose it yourself by comparing the symptoms with the descriptions of brood diseases. Proper diagnosis and control of disease, especially American foulbrood, is extremely important. Otherwise you may lose all your bees and spread infection to other colonies within flight range of your apiary.
Eggs in new worker comb are shown at the top, and mature worker larvae nearly ready to be sealed in their cels are shown in the center. The bottom illustration shows worker pupae with their eyes colored; the cell cappings have been removed to expose the developing bees. (Fig. 30)
A comb from the brood nest showing a good pattern of sealed brood. Young bees have emerged from the center cells. The queen will lay eggs in the center cells as soon as they have been cleaned and polished. (Fig. 31)
The brood nest of the colony is an ellipsoidal or spherical area within the frames. The comb in the center of the brood nest has a large area of brood on each side. The combs toward the outer edges of the nest have smaller and smaller brood areas until the ones on the edge of the nest have only pollen and honey without brood. It is important to keep these combs (frames) in order in a small colony, especially when the temperature may go below 57 degrees F. (14 degrees C.), the clustering temperature of a colony. If you put a large frame of brood near the edge of the cluster, the bees may not be able to keep it covered and warm because the shape of the brood nest has been changed. Eggs and developing bees can be injured or killed by being chilled. In large colonies, and during warm weather, the order of the combs is not as important. However, it is best to keep brood combs together, with combs of pollen and honey on the edges and above the brood nest.
The colony needs pollen and honey in the hive all year as food for the adults and for rearing young bees. It has been estimated that a full cell of each type of food is needed to produce one young bee. The pollen supplies proteins, vitamins, and other minor nutrients. Honey provides carbohydrates in the form of several sugars. Honey removed from the hives must be only the surplus produced by the colony. If more than that is taken, or if it is taken at the wrong time, the bees may starve. A beekeeper must learn to estimate the amount of food, particularly honey, in the hive at each observation and to decide whether the colony is "making a living" or needs some help until more nectar is available. Learn to do this each time you open your hives, especially package colonies or any small colony just getting started. In early spring the bees may be unable to fly for a week or more because of cool or wet weather. At this time, and any time before the major nectar flow period, a colony needs 10 to 20 pounds of reserve food or the equivalent of two or three well-filled combs. You can test for incoming nectar in the hive by holding a comb flat above the open hive and giving it a quick shake downward. Any thin nectar in the comb will splash down onto the tops of the frames where it will be reclaimed by the bees.
When nectar is not available in the field, bees attempt to steal honey from other colonies. The guard bees of strong colonies attack and repel the robbers, but weaker colonies are sometimes overcome and killed by large numbers of robbing bees. The problem is most serious in the spring and the fall at any time hives are opened and combs exposed to bees. The natural defense system of the colony is disturbed by smoke and by the separation of the parts of the hive. Bees from other colonies are attracted and they fly around the exposed combs trying to get some of the colony's stored honey. Even after the hive is put back together, the robber bees may gather along the edges of the cover and other cracks in the hive. They will also try to get into the entrance of the colony as well as other nearby colonies. A beekeeper must learn to recognize the presence of robber bees and to take action to prevent the buildup of widespread robbing. This means keeping hives open only briefly when robbing is liable to occur and being careful not to expose combs, especially ones not protected by bees. It is easier to prevent robbing than to stop it. Always pick up bits of comb in the apiary and try not to let nectar or honey drip outside any hive. Robber bees can be recognized by their darting flight around combs and open hives, often with their legs hanging down. They land on combs and move quickly to cells of honey to fill up. If you see robbing starting, it is a good idea to stop looking at the bees and close the hive. As a precautionary measure, you can stuff grass or weeds lightly into the entrances to reduce their size. With small entrances to guard, the bees of a colony are better able to repel robbers.
The Need for Space in the Spring
The colony increases rapidly in size in April and May. It needs room for brood rearing, for storing honey and pollen, and for the increasing number of adult bees. Since one of the primary causes of swarming is crowding of adult bees, the colony should have two or more full-depth hive bodies or their equivalent to reduce the chance of early swarming. The package colony or nucleus needs a second hive body as soon as most of the foundation has been drawn into comb and bees cover eight or nine frames in the hive. It has been estimated that a 10-frame hive body provides room for about 15,000 adult bees. If this is correct, the growing colony needs at least two hive bodies, and a full-sized colony containing about 60,000 bees needs four hive bodies just for housing the bees.
Spring Management of Overwintered Colonies
There are some special points to consider in management of overwintered colonies. An important one is the late winter-early spring check on honey reserves. This period is a crucial one for the bees because they are rearing brood and must increase honey consumption greatly to keep the brood nest warm and to feed the developing bees. Most losses from starvation take place during this period - not during the middle of winter. The first check of the year should determine two things - whether the colony has enough honey and whether the honey is located on both sides of the cluster. The timing of the examination depends on local conditions and the weather. In central Illinois, the examination can usually be made by mid-February, during a warming period when the temperature reaches the 40's or 50's (5 to 15 degrees C.) on a sunny day. If necessary, the check can be made at much lower temperatures; the chance to save the life of a colony outweighs any minor damage resulting from the observations. Even in a colder climate you would be wise to check the bees not later than March 1.
Put on your protective clothing and open each hive briefly to see if it has sealed honey near the cluster. You should be able to see such sealed honey after removing the cover but without removing any frames. Use smoke lightly but judiciously as needed. If there is honey on both sides of the cluster, no adjustment is necessary and you may close the hive. But if the colony is against one side of the hive or lacking visible food, you should make some changes. Remove a comb with honey from the side of the hive opposite the cluster, pry the frames with the cluster away from the wall of the hive, and insert the honey. Without this adjustment, the cluster of bees may die when it contracts away from food during the next cold period. If the colony needs additional food, you can exchange combs with a well-provisioned hive (Fig. 32) or feed the colony with syrup-filled combs or dry sugar. After looking at a colony during cold weather, you should put a rock or brick on the lid to hold it in place. The bees will be unable to reseal the lid while it is cold, and it may blow off without additional weight.
There is a natural winter loss of bees despite good management. If you find a dead colony, close the entrance and take it out of the apiary as soon as possible. This prevents robbing, damage to combs, and the spread of any disease that may be present. After being freed of dead bees, the hive and combs can be used to start another colony or for supers. Inspect them first for symptoms of disease before reusing them.
The first thorough colony examination should be made on a day when the temperature reaches about 70 degrees F. (21 degrees C.). Look first for the queen or for brood. The absence of brood in a small colony is normal but a colony covering six or eight combs should have young bees and brood. Look at the brood to see if it is normal, without disease, and with no drones in worker cells. Consider the honey reserves and plan to feed the colony if there are less than several full combs of honey.
As the weather continues to warm up in April and May, it is time to do the important spring manipulation called "reversing" the colony. This job consists of moving the colony's brood nest from the top of the hive to the lowest position next to the bottom board. During the winter the colony works its way upward in the hive until it is just beneath the lid of a two- or three- story hive. By exchanging the positions of the top and bottom hive bodies or by moving frames if the hive bottom is nailed on, you "reverse" the colony and provide a stimulus for further upward expansion of the brood nest. You also slow the swarming urge by this manipulation. When you rearrange the hive, place several empty combs above the brood nest where the queen can quickly fill them with eggs. Put part of the stored honey on either side of the empty combs and leave the rest on the outer edges of the brood nest in the lower brood chamber.
Every colony should be reversed at least once during the spring, usually in April or early May, depending on weather conditions in your section of the Midwest. Several other tasks can be done at the same time. You should clean off the bottom board, which will be littered with dead bees, comb fragments, and other debris. At the same time you can exchange hive bodies, tops, and bottoms that need repair or painting. At the end of winter the combs of the lowest hive body are usually empty of everything except a few cells of pollen. For this reason it is a good time to cull old, damaged combs and frames before they are refilled with brood, honey, and pollen. Combs with large areas of drone cells should also be pulled out. Remove all winter packing materials, if you use them, at this time. If you use chemicals for disease prevention, apply them after reversing the colonies and inspecting the brood for any symptoms of American foulbrood and other bee diseases.
Pollen is essential for rearing young bees and developing strong colonies. Newly emerged adult bees also need pollen to eat. In late winter the colony uses pollen that was stored the previous year. If there is little stored pollen, the colony will not die but its growth will be hindered until fresh pollen is available in the field. Feeding pollen or pollen substitutes in February and March stimulates the bees to build strong colonies early in the season. If you want to make addi- tional colonies by dividing, or need strong bees for fruit pollination, consider feeding a pollen mixture to the bees. However, unless you can use the extra bees, you may only create a swarming problem and a feeding problem for the extra bees that require food until nectar is available in quantity. Pollen mixtures are especially valuable to help colonies develop normally in rural areas where most of the land is cultivated or in other areas where early sources of natural pollen are lacking. Without such help, the colonies may not reach full strength in time for the main nectar flow.
Honey bees have such a strong urge to collect pollen in the spring that they create problems when they visit farm feedlots for bran and ground corn. A dry pollen mixture placed in the apiary in February and March will help to satisfy this need and may keep the bees at home. Once started, the feeding should continue without interruption until natural pollen is available.