5th Honey bee Management revision post: the year’s work in the apiary (January to June)

A 5th revision post for the British Beekeeping Association’s Module 1 exam, Honey bee Management, which I’m taking in March. Onto 1.12 on the syllabus:

“The Candidate shall be able to give a detailed account of:-

the year’s work in the apiary and how this is dependent upon the annual colony cycle and the timing of local bee forage;”

The word ‘local’ is key here. What the bees are doing in urban London will be different from what they’re up to in the wilds of Wales, never mind what they’re plotting in Pennsylvania. You have to get to know your own local timings, just like a baker must know their oven and a carpenter their tools. Some ideas for London beekeeping below…


The bees are clustering, huddling round the Queen and surviving on their honey stores. If the weather is mild the cluster may be very loose. On warm days they will be taking ‘cleansing flights’ and fetching water to dilute honey stores.

Following the winter solstice (usually the 21st, sometimes 22nd Dec), the bees recognise the increasing day lengths. If the queen stopped laying completely during December, she will start laying again sometime in January.  To keep the brood warm enough the workers will need to maintain the centre of the brood nest at around 33°C (when no brood is present they can let it drop to about 20°C, which is warm enough to keep the workers active). The temperature will still be cold outside so the bees will be using up a lot of energy generating the required heat, so can get through their honey stores very quickly.

There will be little forage available yet, but the bees will seek out what fresh pollen there is for the new brood. The first snowdrops may be beginning to poke their way out of the ground. Other plants that may be out include crocus, winter flowering honeysuckle and the willow variety Salix aegyptiaca, a musk willow that under the right conditions will flower in January.

The British winter of 2011/2012 has been particularly warm…on 8th January Don Ember in South Yorkshire posted on the BBKA forum: “It does seem that, with weather like this, so mild and with intervals of quite strong sunshine, the bees are actually finding forage. Like last year, I have primroses already out in the same sheltered spot in the garden and I continue to see dandelions as well as the gorse I have mentioned before; I have some snowdrops about to open also.”

Some things for the beekeeper to do:

  • Oxalic acid treatment while brood is low and varroa mites are overwintering on the adult bees
  • Heft to check weight of stores; feed candy or fondant if stores are light and keep an eye on their levels
  • Make sure the hives have not been vandalised or attacked by woodpeckers
  • Check dead bees are not building up in the hive entrances and blocking the exit of live bees
  • If it snows, clear the snow away from the hive entrance. Bees tend to fly up towards the light, the intensity of which they monitor using the three simple ocelli eyes on top of their heads. The light reflected from the snow can confuse them, causing them to fly into it and freeze.
  • Attend local beekeeping association winter meetings, read beekeeping books in your warm cosy house as the wind howls outside
Snowdrops in snow photo by Iris Wijngaarden on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Snowdrop.JPG


Now the cluster will begin to break up. The queen will increase her laying if the weather is warm enough. The bees will still be surviving on their winter stores. February can bring nasty weather – rain, cold temperatures, strong wind, even snow, so it will still be too cold for opening the hive up.

Increasing numbers of welcome flowers start to appear: hazel, snowdrops, winter heathers, crocuses. I took the photo below at the apiary in early February last year.

Crocuses at the apiary

Some things for the beekeeper to do:

  • Repair or replace woodwork as needed
  • Scrape burr comb off spare hive parts and queen excluders etc and use a blowtorch to lightly scorch the inside of the parts.
  • Paint the outside of hives with a wood preservative or water soluble microporous paint so that the hive parts have time to breathe and dry before they are used again.
  • Make up frames, organise equipment. If doing a shook swarm or Bailey comb exchange in March ten new frames of foundation are needed per hive.
  • Heft to check weight of stores; feed candy or fondant if stores are light and keep an eye on their levels


Now the beekeeping season really gets going. The winter cluster breaks up, the winter bees die off, the queen starts laying in earnest and the bees start to forage for both pollen and nectar. They can find hazel, crocuses, willow, pears and plums.

March and April are critical times for bees. With the onset of spring, hive activity is increased, brood rearing is well under way, most of the winter stores have been eaten and   while the flowers mentioned above are out, spring forage pickings are still fairly low. And if the colony sends too many bees out foraging there is a risk that the brood will not be adequately nursed, and may become undernourished or chilled. There is a period from March until well into May when the brood outnumbers the adult bees.

Some things for the beekeeper to do:

  • If the weather is warm enough, a quick inspection of the colony to make sure the bees are healthy. It is best not to examine below 10°C, as more of the foragers will be at home and the colony more defensive.
  • The quick inspection should investigate whether the bees have enough food, sufficient room, are queen-right and disease-free.
  • Check the bees have enough stores to feed themselves and the growing brood nest, feed if necessary with a weak feed ratio of 1kg white sugar to 2 pints of water. If the weather is still too cold to open up the hive, heft.
  • Feed should only be given before the first super is put on, otherwise the bees will store it in the supers and your honey will be sugar syrup flavoured – i.e. not real honey!
  • Remove mouse guards and replace with entrance blocks.
  • Check the hive entrances are not piled up with dead winter bees.
  • To replace old comb, carry out a shook-swarm (we did this on March 19 last year) or begin a Bailey comb exchange.

The first block of fondant I gave my hive in winter 2010/2011 took two months for them to eat; look how much they had eaten of the second, given in late February 2011, just two weeks later. They really do require a lot of food at this time of year.

Fondant feast

How much my bees ate in just two short weeks










The first drones are usually laid in April. Drones become sexually mature 4-5 days after emerging as an adult bee. Colonies will not attempt to swarm before their first drones reach this stage, but once the first drones are flying you need to be on your guard for potential swarms.

As long as there is a good nectar flow, the queen will be laying strongly. Oil seed rape, cherry, hawthorn, apple and dandelion are available.

Some things for the beekeeper to do:

  • Most beekeepers carry out the first full colony inspections in April. Pick a calm sunny day, preferably above 14-16°C (some say 14°C, others 16°C) when the bees are flying freely. If the hive is opened on a colder day the bees have to use up a lot of energy re-establishing the correct levels of temperature and humidity for the brood.
  • Full colonies in April should be covering five to ten frames in their brood box. If they are not investigate for dwindling problems caused by nosema, acarine or varroa.
  • If the brood inspection reveals that the colony is building up slowly, stimulative feeding with a small amount of weak strength sugar syrup in a small contact feeder can help. Do this intermittently – the container being left empty for a few days between feeds mimics the arrival of erratic early spring flower nectar and will encourage a higher rate of egg-laying from the queen. Only do this when no supers are on.
  • Add a queen excluder and super when the brood box is full of bees
  • Start regular checks for early queen cells – it is not unusual to have April swarms in warm areas.
  • If you collect swarms, make sure your swarm collection kit is complete and ready for use
  • Place bait hives for swarms
  • If you keep your bees near oil seed rape you will need to bear in mind that the resulting honey granulates very easily in the comb. Keep the colony full (prevent swarming, do not carry out an artificial swarm either), so that it can maintain warmth in the honey supers and reduce the risk of granulation.
  • Drone trapping for varroa control can be done now (see my Varroa Control Workshop post for info on this).

Below is a frame of capped worker brood surrounded by pollen stores and capped white honey along the top of the frame, taken in April 2011.

Capped brood


The colony grows rapidly in May, responding to increasing day length and available amounts of nectar. The bees will instinctively want to grow the colony as part of preparations for swarming; their way of reproducing. You need to visit the bees weekly to  catch any swarms before they happen – bees usually swarm once queen cells in their hive are capped, which is day 8 after the egg is laid.

Oil seed rape, dog roses, cherry, horse chestnut, apples, dandelion, sycamore, field bean and raspberry are in flower. In my ‘What’s flowering now: late May‘ post last year, I photographed bees on bramble, poppies and wild mallow too. Some species will be most valuable for their nectar, others for their pollen. The colony will start collecting propolis during the warm summer months – it is too hard to collect at under 5C.

Some things for the beekeeper to do:

  • Watch for signs of the colony building up to swarming. These include drones, ‘play’ cells and a sharp reduction in the queen’s egg laying rate as the colony slims her down to a flying weight.
  • Watch for signs that swarming is imminent. Note any queen cells. Hold the frame horizontally in good light to see what is inside – is the cell nearly full-size? Is it highly polished? (If so it is ready for an egg to be laid). Is there royal jelly in the base? Can you see an egg (difficult against the white of the royal jelly) or larva floating on the royal jelly? In increasing order of urgency, these signs indicate swarming is due.
    Carry out an artificial swarm method rather than squishing every queen cell you see, as eventually you will miss one.
  • If you carry out an artificial swarm to control swarming there comes a time, after three weeks, when the worker brood in the original brood chamber has emerged but the new young queen has not been laying long enough for her brood to be sealed. This means all the varroa will be on the adult bees; if another healthy colony donates a frame with some unsealed brood – preferably with some drone brood on it – then many mites will be attracted to this frame, which can then be removed and destroyed when most of the cells are sealed.
  • Harvest any ripe oil seed rape honey. This granulates in the comb rapidly unless you quickly harvest and extract as soon as the nectar flow has stopped and the honey is ripe. Even using clearer boards or leaving overnight will result in granulation, after which the honey requires melting out using specialist equipment.
  • Add supers as necessary, one at a time, waiting until the first super is at least two thirds full before putting on the next.
  • Book the loan of a honey extractor from your association, if possible
  • Drone trapping for varroa control
  • Swarm collecting

A queen cell on the bottom of a frame packed with bees, taken in May 2011


The colony now reaches its maximum strength. In the UK the main nectar flow is often over a short three-week period in May-June. As long as enough pollen is being brought in to produce brood food, at the height of the season the queen may lay more than 1,500-3,000 eggs a day, depending upon her race and strain – more than her own body weight in eggs. Apart from short rest periods of 5-10 minutes, she will do this round the clock. The colony should soon have around 40,000-60,000 or more bees.

In my ‘What’s flowering now: late June‘ post last year, I photographed bees on blackberry bramble, thistle, hogweed, lavender and white clover.

Some things for the beekeeper to do:

  • Maintain regular brood nest checks for queen cells and colony health
  • Carry out swarm control techniques as necessary
  • Monitor for varroa
  • Drone trapping for varroa control
  • Collect swarms
  • Add supers

Our new queen hatched from our queen cell, June 2011 – all hail Queen Rosemary, marked out in royal blue.

Queen Rosemary

A honeybee on blackberry bramble, June 2011

This post is getting a bit long…July to December to be continued soon…does anyone have any suggestions for beekeeping tasks I’ve forgotten?

EDIT: July to December now posted here.


  • BBKA News incorporating the British Bee Journal (2011 issues)
  • Keeping Healthy Honey Bees, David Aston & Sally Bucknall (2010)
  • Module 1 Study Notes, Mid Bucks Beekeeping Association

About Emily Scott

I am a UK beekeeper who has recently moved from London to windswept, wet Cornwall. I first started keeping bees in the Ealing Beekeepers Association’s local apiary in 2008, when I created this blog as a record for myself of my various beekeeping related disasters and - hopefully! - future successes.
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7 Responses to 5th Honey bee Management revision post: the year’s work in the apiary (January to June)

  1. ceciliag says:

    This is all good stuff, what a wonderful course, you are probably a good 6 weeks ahead of me but that is ok, i will work it out,, keep it coming! c


  2. Chris Slade says:

    Nit picking:
    January: Anybody with a car thermometer will notice that the temperature is several degrees warmer in built up areas than in the countryside. Also, everybody with a garden will have SOMETHING in flower every day of the year. This combination of temperature and forage make ‘local’ beekeeping much more local than sweeping statements like ‘the south east’.
    Does the queen recognise increasing day lengths? How? She is stuck in a dark hive surrounded by hordes of daughters making it even darker. I suggest that it is the workers who recognise the solstice and alter Mother’s diet.
    An interesting trick to play (and film maybe) would be to place a large mirror horizontally, face up, in front of a hive entrance and see how it affects behaviour.

    February: When doing a Bailey change, try using just 2 sheets of foundation rather than ten. One is kept whole and placed centrally so that it forms a bridge/ladder for the queen.The other is cut into starter strips to enable the bees to draw natural comb with cell sizes of their own choosing. Later, measure and record the sizes in different parts of the comb/hive.

    March. Bees do forage at <10C. I've seen bees returning to the hive with pollen at 6C. If you feed sugar to your bees either you will give them exactly the right amount, in which case there is a career open for you with the Met Office; too little, in which case your bees will die; or too much in which case they will store the surplus and mix it with natural stores thus ensuring that what you harvest and eat/sell as honey is partially recycled Tate & Lyle's.

    April. If you expect oilseed rape, put on supers with starter strips so that the honey, when solid, can easily be cut out and processed without the hassle of a centrifugal extractor or the stress of worrying about granulation. Leave a 'footprint' of comb around the perimeter so that you don't need starter strips next time. Get used to handling frames vertically and not slanticular as is shown in several of your photos. You are less likely to dislodge the queen, spill nectar or to break unwired comb.

    May. Bees USUALLY wait until a queen cell is sealed before swarming, but, as Wedmore observed 80 years ago: "Bees do nothing invariably". You don't need to borrow a comb (+ potential disease) from another colony – just remove the first brood to be sealed in both mother and daughter colonies. In the supers, move the full central combs to the outside to encourage the bees to fill the others.

    June. That figure seems a bit on the high side for English bees and may have come from an American source: everything's bigger in America!

    I note from the photographs your progress from hedger's gloves to Marigolds. Will you have the confidence to bee-keep bare handed this year? As a first step I suggest you cut off the thumb and first two fingers of your hedger's gloves. This will give protection to the remainder of your digits and hands but will enable you to feel what you are doing with your finger tips. When you have discovered how much less clumsy you are when gloveless you will use them only when applying oxalic etc.


    • Emily Heath says:

      Thanks for leaving such a detailed reply Chris. I know I have a lot of learning to do and at times I wonder if I’m being too ambitious trying to take this exam after only 3 1/2 years beekeeping, but even if I don’t pass I’ll have learnt loads and that’s what matters.

      I take your point about beekeeping being much more local than even the South-East and have changed the post to say ‘London’.

      March – I was referring to nectar foraging, which the books say is usually done at minimum temperatures of 12-14C. I will change the post to reflect this. I agree I’ve seen bees collecting pollen in lower temps.

      Re the danger of creating sugar honey by feeding in March, I wouldn’t feed whilst any supers were on and will change the bullet points to say that. Here in Ealing the bees often take a while to get going in the spring, especially after shook-swarming, so we wouldn’t put supers on till April at the earliest.

      Thanks for the oil seed rape advice, I have no personal experience of it.

      Will see how brave I feel about going gloveless! Our bees are very nice so I think the main danger would be getting stung by accidentally squashing one.


      • daveloveless says:

        Just my own thoughts on gloved vs gloveless…

        I was originally a gloveless beekeeper, and rather happy about it. I like feeling the bees under my fingers and having that tactile contact with the hives. However, I started having allergic reactions after my second sting this past summer (both on the hand). My hand swelled up quite impressively and stayed hot and VERY itchy for about three days. After that, I reluctantly moved to gloves.

        I find that I like the gloved approach because it does speed up the time I spend in the apiary. On the other hand, I dislike it because I’m more clumsy and careless (hence the reason for the speed). When I’m gloved, I find that I have to consistently remind myself to slow down.

        Both methods work and are, of course, acceptable. If it weren’t for the reaction, I’d prefer gloveless though.


  3. Pingback: Artificial Swarms « the prodigal

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