Lindsay's Apiaries

    About the Apiary

  An informative and sometimes humorous column published in
  The New Zealand Beekeeper Journal

    Setting your hives up for the season

   About the Apiary - October 2012

By the time you read this, pussy willow, kowhai, and native clematis will have finished flowering.

Willow shelterbelts have set bud and should be only a week or so away. Gorse and broom are in full bloom, giving valuable pollen in waste areas and shortly a lot of the trees and shrubs in our native bush will begin to flower.

For the urban beekeeper, there are heaps of nectar and pollen-producing shrubs stimulating the hives between showers. All these are stimulating the queen into action, laying more than 1000 eggs per day or out to the edges of the frames that the bees can keep at brood temperature.

That means the queen could be producing a frame of brood every three days and when these bees emerge in 21 days’ time, they will need another two or three frames to hang out on, clean and polish the cells so the queen can then lay in these also. The number of bees expands at a considerable rate, although at the same time older field bees are dying off.

What you do now sets your hives up for the year. Allow your hive to swarm and it will not produce an excess. Allow the hive to run out of stores and the bees that don’t die will cannibalise the young brood in order to stay alive. This will create a brood break right on the honey flow so again, very little honey will be produced.

Maintain adequate stores

For each bee produced, your hive will have to supply a cell of honey. It doesn’t take much to upset the balance of stores in the hive.
A week of unsettled weather can quickly see reserves reduced. During your checks, make sure there are always at least three full frames of honey in reserve in the hive for a bad week. When a hive gets down below this level of reserves, it’s best to start feeding it.

When you feed a hive with sugar syrup it should be as thick as possible and given in a large amount (five litres or more). Make sure the bees have room to expand.

Control swarms

Generally the first swarm control measure we take early in the season is to reverse the first and second supers so the brood nest is concentrated into the bottom super. If the hive is strong, the bees may have already moved down into the centre of the bottom super and there may be partly filled frames of brood there. By reversing the supers, this brood will be isolated from the now main brood nest in the bottom super and could be abandoned if there is a cold snap.

Any brood that is in the top of the frames should be moved to the outside of the brood nest in the bottom super. This may mean that frames of pollen and honey will have to be moved sideways to accommodate them. The brood nest should always form an ellipse in shape. If the hive is very strong, a frame of capped brood from the bottom super may have to be moved up into the centre so that the partly filled frames of brood in the top are not isolated.

During the rearrangement, if the weather permits, you should also check areas of emerging brood for signs of disease. Check any cells not emerged in a group of emerged cells by flicking off the cappings. Check out the developing larvae underneath. All should be well. If you are not sure, consult another beekeeper.

The idea is to prevent or stop swarming. Ideally the hive should have a young queen as first-year queens generally don’t swarm.
We all learn after a while to read the frames and judge the colony’s development.
A strong hive that has bees covering two supers with lots of drone brood could be an indication that the hive is preparing to swarm. Keep an close eye on these or take measures now to reduce the population.

If you have new queens at hand or well developed queen cells, the hive can be either split in half if they are excessively strong (bubbling over the top of the supers), or the population can be reduced slightly by removing two or three frames of emerging brood. If you don’t have queens or cells available, give these frames to a smaller hive provided it is disease free. If you have developing queen cells, make up a nuc hive with two frames of emerging brood and two frames of honey and pollen. Move it away from the original apiary so the field bees on the frames can’t drift back home to the original hive.

If everything looks good in the strong hive, give it more room by adding another super or two so they don’t start storing nectar around the top part of the brood frames.When adding another super, bait the bees into it by moving an outside frame covered with bees into the centre of the new super.
Not sure whether it’s strong enough for another super? If you have bees covering all the frames in the top super, tilt the hive back and look along the bottom bars of the bottom super. Bees hanging down on four frames indicates the hive is ready for more supers.

The idea at this time of the year is to keep an eye on queen cell bud development. I generally remove any buds around the top of the frames, leaving only those along the bottom bar. This way, every 10 days, it’s a simple matter to check the hive by tilting back the top super and looking along the bottom bar of the top super at the queen cell buds. As soon as I see an egg or young larva in a queen cell bud, it’s time to artificially swarm the hive.

Once you find a queen cell developing or about to emerge on your 10–15 day inspections, the first instinct is to kill it.
DON’T. Put this frame aside and look for eggs. Sometimes a hive will supersede rather than swarm and that may be the only queen cell.
If it is, then put everything back together and let the bees get on with it. It also might be that you killed the queen during your last inspection and this is the replacement.

Splitting a hive

If the hive has developing queen cells and has eggs, it is going to swarm. If it has developed queen cells and no eggs, it’s on the verge of swarming. In both cases, the hive must be split so the bees think they have swarmed. This means leaving the field force with the old queen and the uncapped brood on the bottom board. The rest of the sealed brood, queen cells and bees should be hived on top above a split board.

Remove the hive lid and place it to the side of the hive, then place all the supers (except the bottom one) on top. Take a new super with foundation frames, place it on a split board next to the hive and take out most of the foundation frames.

Remove the frames of open brood with the adhering bees (check first that there are no queen cells on them) and place them in the centre of the new super. Take two frames of honey and pollen from the original hive and place these on the outside of the super. You now have a super with honey and pollen frames on the outside, with foundation frames on either side of the frames of open brood.

Go through the hive and try and find the queen. Take her and the frame she is on (cut or rub out any queen cells) and place them in the centre of the new super. Then remove the old super off the floorboard and replace it with the new super. Let the field bees return and if they quickly fill the super, put another one on top.

If you have only foundation frames, take a drawn frame with nectar from another super and place it in the middle of the new super to draw the bees up. If you have a mixture of foundation and drawn frames, interspace them with one foundation and one drawn frame across the super, starting with a drawn comb in the middle.
Then put on the split board with the entrance to the rear and rebuild the hive again: capped brood in the middle bottom super, nectar and pollen to the outside and the leftover foundation frames interspaced in the second super. You can leave two or more of the longest and fattest queen cells. Cut around the rest and remove them so you have spares in case another hive needs splitting.

Leave the hive until the new queen has emerged, mated and the first lot of brood is capped in the top supers, then recombine with the bottom hive using newsprint, or move the top colony away to make up a separate hive. It will depend upon the brood pattern of the old queen as to whether she’s replaced or left as a separate colony.

The key point is to have the hive expanding all the time without making queen cells. This aim can be achieved by requeening every second year and giving the bees room to expand. With regular inspection every 10 days you can see the hive developing. When the first super is nearly covered with bees, lift a couple of outside frames to the middle of the next super, close the remaining frames to the centre and replace those removed with drawn frames if you have them. If you use a queen excluder above the first super, shake off all the bees from the capped frames so the queen is not inadvertently lifted into the second super above the excluder. The same goes for honey supers. When the bees are working the four centre frames of the top honey super, it’s time to put on the next super as a strong hive full of bees can fill a super of drawn frames in a week.

If you only have undrawn foundation frames, the bees take a little longer to fill the super. In this case, it’s important to bait the bees up into the next super by spacing a foundation frame between each drawn frame in a checkerboard effect. These foundation frames will give the bees something to do and it will also help alleviate swarming.

For some, swarming will be a few months away but those up north and on the coast, it can be in early October. Get to know your area. Ask other beekeepers nearby what are their hives up to so you have some idea of where your hive is at in terms of its development.

For those that have just started with a nuc, feed them continuously with a heavy sugar solution (two parts sugar to one part water) so the bees use their bodies as storage devices, stimulating wax production. Move the pollen frames out by one frame as the bees start to cover them by putting a new foundation frame in between for the bees to build out.

When all the frames are built out in the first super, add another and lift two frames of brood from the outside of the brood nest and place them in the centre of the new super. At the beginning of December the hive should be big enough to look after itself.

Reference books

If you want to read a good book that explains things in detail, go to and download a PDF of the book A year among the bees by C. C. Miller. Charles Miller was one of the biggest producers of comb honey in the late 1800s and this book explains his methods in detail. You can then read his other books, all online free from the archives, or purchase a hard copy. These books were written when beekeeping was expanding in the USA and the only way you could learn was from a book. Charles Miller is one of my favourite authors. For those with a Kindle, use the Kindle download option.

Another good book (available from other online sources) is Hive Management: a seasonal guide for beekeepers by Richard Bonney.

Things to do this month

Check that your varroa mite treatments are working by the sugar shake method (scoop the bees from an outside brood frame), or note the mite fall over seven days.

Check food, check pollen: sometimes there’s a dearth of both early November and hives may need feeding.

Do an AFB check: once you have completed a full inspection of all frames, just check in areas of emerging brood whenever you open a hive.

Raise queen cells, super hives, requeen or unite any hives that aren’t expanding.

Control swarming, cull out old dark frames or move them into the honey supers for removal later.

Fit foundation to cut comb honey frames.

If you are a commercial operator and all is going well, you shouldn’t have time to do much of anything else.