Things to check now
Is every hive truly level? It is worth checking; one of last year’s hive stand legs may have sunk a bit. Do not rely on your eye, use a spirit level.  Is there encrusted propolis round the tops of your brood chambers where the frame ends are supported? If so, it is time to change them for clean ones.

Mark and clip queens
Are all your queens marked? It is easier to find them in April before there are too many bees. Last year’s queen colour was white, so if they are not yet marked, that is the one to use. Beginners, only beginners, I hope, may feel uneasy at the very thought of picking up a queen in their fingers. But knowing the exact location of the queen is an essential pre-requisite for many manipulations and the ability to mark her, an essential skill. If you are not confident enough to pick up a queen, use a queen marking cage; I think the crown-of-thorns is the easiest. Later, when there are plenty of drones, practice picking them up by the wings and marking them; hold them by the thorax; they are robust enough. Practice often until you have the confidence to try marking workers too, then graduate to queens, which will never sting you.

This is the time of year to clip queens. Once one is being held for marking, it is not difficult to take off a quarter of one wing. Some beekeepers do not clip but those who do gain about a week’s grace because no swarm can depart until there is a virgin flying.

Clean out old comb
Now is the best time of year to remove old comb. Any that is black, misshapen, or not fully drawn should go. Ideally these are the ones you moved to the outsides of the brood chamber last autumn. At least three frames should be replaced with frames of new foundation. They go on the edge of the brood nest for the bees to draw. If you already have some spare frames of drawn comb, keep these until they are needed elsewhere.

Make regular inspections
As some colonies will swarm in April, I recommend you start making brood inspections every week. Ted Hooper’s Five Questions[1] tell you what to look for. While every question is important, the prime one for us is “(mid-season): Are there any queen cells present in the colony?”

To delay any real determination to swarm getting into the bees’ heads, provide much more than the forty-litre volume a colony normally chooses when looking for a new home. That means ‘supering’ in good time. The volume of a National brood chamber is 35 litres, a National super is eighteen litres.  As we prefer queens not lay in them, supers should go above a queen excluder. There is no need for queen excluders to be in the hive at all before supers are present. I repeat, wire queen excluders are more expensive but much better than the punched zinc ones, or bamboo either. Add supers to give the bees standing room this month and room for honey next. Supers should be added when the outer brood frames are not yet covered with bees.

After the first super, will the next go above or below the first? Will you over-super or under-super? It is common for the bees to extend the pollen arch into the first super; under-supering means there will be some pollen in each one, but many argue that putting empty space next to the brood discourages swarming. When not on the bees, pollen in a super makes it more attractive to wax moth.

Sometimes the bees funnel up the central super comb, leaving the side ones unfilled. If over-supering, a way to prevent this is either a crown board, with Porter escape holes open, or a sheet of newspaper under the empty super.

Since the bees may be expected to make swarm preparations most years, do you have firmly fixed in your mind, exactly what you plan to do to stop them? And, essentially, all of the equipment required? Pagden’s is the method usually taught, but many find it confusing, akin to ‘the three-card trick’. It is simpler, as soon as a swarm queen cell is found, to take out the queen with a small nucleus including some food and, preferably, moving it to another apiary. That is what most experienced beekeepers do. If you want to do this too, will you be able first to find the queen?


Reference:   [1] Ted Hooper; Guide to Bees and Honey

Photos: Jeremy Quinlan