Bees in March

March is here and it’s starting off as a cold one!  Unfortunately, the timing is not ideal for your bees. March is the most common month for colonies to starve. If we get a day of sun and warmer temperatures then make time to take a peek inside your hive to see how your bees are doing.

By this time, the queen has been steadily increasing her egg-laying output for well over a month as the colony is building up for spring. There are many more mouths to feed now than there were even two weeks ago.  Additionally, many colonies are reaching the last bits of their winter stores, making them extremely vulnerable to periods of rainy weather. If your bees cannot leave the hive to forage, they will be unable to feed themselves or their developing brood, much less continue to increase their population. They may even be forced to cannibalize brood to recycle precious protein. Don’t let this happen to your bees! Colonies in this state rarely recover.

Here are some things to consider for your hive health in March:

  • Be vigilant! If the bees are clustered just under the inner cover and/or the colony feels light when you lift it from the back, take action to provide supplemental nutrition. It’s not quite time to give them liquid sugar syrup, so give them dry granulated sugar.  Doing so early in the season when the weather is still cool and rainy indicates to your bees that nectar is readily available and prompts them to increase brood production.  Part of the population will shift into foraging mode and begin to search for food when not much is available naturally right now.  This “fruitless foraging” wears out precious members of your hive population and creates additional mouths to feed.  Stick to dry sugar for a bit longer, and consider adding a protein patty if you see open brood.  It takes a lot of protein to raise new bees!
  • Feed syrup if temperatures are well above 50 degrees and fondant if it’s cooler. The main goal of the sugar/fondant is to provide carbohydrates that will be used to heat the hive, energize the bees during good foraging weather, and feed the brood.
  • It is time to feed protein. If your bees don’t have a healthy (at least 3-4 cells wide) ring of pollen between the honey and the brood, they need protein supplementation. Feed protein patties as near to the brood nest as possible.
  • Do not allow food to run out once you have started feeding. This is important! If the food source disappears suddenly, the bees will be forced to shrink their brood nest in response. Many bees will die. Keep providing supplementary food until the weather is nice enough for the bees to forage or until the bees stop taking it. Bees prefer natural nectar and pollen and will stop taking supplementary food as soon as they are able.
  • With all the brood in the colonies, mite levels are exploding! We are currently recommending a one strip treatment of Mite Away Quick Strips, with a mite count both before and after treatment. We feel the full two strip dosage is too risky to use until queens are readily available. Apiguard (thymol) is a good option when daily highs are above 59° for an extended period of time.
  • If your bees have begun to raise brood and are concentrated towards the top of your hive, consider doing a box reversal.  If your bottom box is empty, switch it with the top box.  This will give your bees more space to expand upwards as the colony builds in population, and is a great early intervention for swarm prevention.  If the broodnest is split between the two hive boxes, it is best to postpone the reversal to avoid splitting up the brood.

A late winter inspection is also a great time to switch out a soggy inner cover or lid, and clear off any dead bees from the screened bottom board.

If your hive didn’t survive the winter, here are some steps to be taking:

  • Take a closer look at the frames and try to identify the problem.  For example, the bees in photo above you can see underneath the cluster of dead bees are individuals that died head-first in the cells (closer look, bottom photo), a classic sign of starvation.  Often times a colony dwindles in size to a point where they cannot break their cluster to access food stores.
  • Again in the top photo, high mite levels may be indicated by the presence of dead bees inside capped cells.  And the remnants of a few emergency queen cells indicate the bees tried to  unsuccessfully replace their queen late in the season.
  • Seal off the entrances to dead-out hives to prevent mice and robbers, and start making a plan to restart your colony this spring.