April is normally a time of expansion for the colony. If the weather is kind, i.e. above 12°C, the bees will be able to forage for pollen and nectar and the queen will increase her rate of laying. As long as the colony has a strong and healthy queen all should be well, but do remember that the colony needs space for storage of honey, eggs and brood as well as for the growing population. Space helps to delay the inevitable urge to swarm – a natural occurrence. If in doubt, add a super. Swarming is nature’s way of increasing colonies. The total number of colonies in any one area is restricted in the same way as many forms of wildlife and that is by the available food supply.
Choose a warm, sunny day preferably between noon and 2 pm. Inspections from now on throughout the season should focus on five areas:
- is the queen is laying (it is not necessary to find or see the queen)? If eggs are seen and there is worker brood, we know she was present in the last three days.
- does the colony have adequate room for population expansion and nectar storage and honey processing? The brood box has a pre-determined number of combs, but supers can be added to accommodate colony needs.
- does the colony have enough food to feed the population until your next inspection? Don’t forget that as the colony expands its food needs increase. If in doubt, feed syrup.
- is the colony preparing to swarm? It is very likely that strong colonies will soon be making early swarming preparations. The production of queen cells is a sure sign, a queen cell will contain a lava floating on royal jelly. Queen cups are often produced by colonies for reasons best known to themselves but only when an egg is laid in it should swarming alarm bells ring.
- Are the bees healthy? Remember to check both adult bees, unsealed larvae and capped larvae. If at any time you find a lot of viral damage (deformed wings are the most obvious) check and treat the varroa population.
Swarming can be controlled by a variety of methods. Simple removal of queen cells, ideally before they are fully sealed will delay the inevitable but not stop it. If you miss one queen cell they will swarm! This will give you time to undertake your swarm control. Colony Inspection needs to be at regular intervals of between 7 to 10 days from mid April until August. If your queen has been clipped, inspections can be extended to 14 days.
No eggs or only drone brood?
If there are no eggs there are, of course, two possibilities. There is no queen or she is not laying. If you aren’t sure, place a marked frame from another colony (brush/shake off adhering bees) of young unsealed worker brood in the centre of the problem hive. Re-inspect this frame 3 – 7 days later. If queen cells have been started then the colony is queenless, if not, then there is a queen but she has not come into lay.
If you can’t find any worker brood but there is drone brood there are two possibilities. The most likely is that you have a drone laying queen, she has run out of sperm. The other possibility is you have laying workers. If a colony has been queenless for some time the workers’ ovaries develop and they lay unfertilised eggs. How do you tell which you have? Small patches of drone brood, more than one egg per cell and eggs laid on the cell sides indicate laying workers. Larger areas of drone brood, one egg per cell laid at the bottom of the cell are the result of a drone laying queen.