Hive Selection and Management

These guidelines have been extracted from Protocol for Scale Hive Measurements of the Honey Bee Nectar Flow, HoneyBeeNet.gsfc.nasa.gov (This protocol was written for manual measurements made with mechanical scales instead of computerized automatic electronic scales.)

For information on feeding scale hives, see Feeding Scale Hives.

[Notes from a conversation with Dr. Esaisas at HoneyBeeNet:
1. NASA is currently interested in the performance of the environment, not the performance of individual hives.
2. Many beginners have reservations about moving hive location and losing foragers, or have never moved a hive before, or also want to see the hive record for a recovery from that swarm or multiple swarms. We need to overcome those somewhat legitimate concerns.]


Hive Selection and Management


A. Select a medium strong, healthy colony
B. Switch out a bad colony ASAP.
C. Over Super. DO NOT LET THE COLONY RUN OUT OF EMPTY COMB.
D. Manage this colony for extracted honey production.

A. Select a medium strong, healthy colony. A medium strong, healthy colony is recommenced , as you especially want it to prosper, stay put, and not swarm. Use care in selecting the colony to put on the scale. A minimal pollination strength colony (6 frames of bees and brood) in two deeps or 3 mediums would be a good size colony. Resist the temptation to put your strongest colony on the scale in hopes of setting a new local record for daily gain, unless you are absolutely certain that it will not get into the swarmy mode as compared to the nectar collecting mode. If you are absolutely certain of this, please let the rest of us know how you figure that out!

A young marked queen, healthy abundant bees, and good equipment is best. You want a colony that you can manage confidently. You will be spending a good bit of effort making those measurements, and you do not want to risk losing the good data continuity (not to mention the honey) because it swarmed. (although this need not mean the end of the record – see Special Cases).

B. Switch out a bad colony ASAP. If (when) a colony goes bad, it is much much better to switch it out with a good queenright colony as soon as possible. The common misconception is that we are tracking colony performance, when actually we are trying to track the performance of the environment, and we need a good hive to do that.

C. Over Super. DO NOT LET THE COLONY RUN OUT OF EMPTY COMB.

Make sure you have an abundance of supers with empty drawn comb. I generally start with four at the end of March, and have increased to seven on one occasion. Lack of empty comb for nectar storage can put a major dent in nectar collection, and encourages swarming.

Over-supering, or providing more than sufficient drawn comb for nectar storage, is encouraged, because we do not want the colony to run out of room, and because empty comb encourages nectar foraging. We do not recommend that the scale colony be used for comb honey production for this reason. Although comb honey management would not necessarily preclude a useful record, it might reflect a slightly different nectar flow from an adjacent colony maintained with excess drawn comb. Also, the reduction of brood nest volume, or crowding, is a common management technique to encourage rapid comb building in comb honey supers, which also would perturb the weight record. Comb honey colonies tend to produce less total honey because of the required management needed to fill those beautiful frames with the highly saleable product. So, use another colony to make your comb honey.

D. Manage this colony for extracted honey production, in the manner to which you are accustomed.

You can perform all needed management manipulations like reversing brood chambers, feeding the colony syrup, grease patties, and pollen patties, etc. directly on the scale. You must just note the weight changes before and after such procedures. When you remove that empty syrup jar and protective hive body/box, or miller feeder, be sure to record that weight loss.

Feeding

The colony should have received stimulative feeding, (light syrup, and pollen patties if needed) and it may continue to receive stimulative feeding until the flow commences.

Swarm Control

Inspect the colony weekly, briefly, for signs of swarm cells, and congestion. By briefly I mean one or two minutes or less, especially on good days, and with minimal smoke. Look for larvae, active queen cells with royal jelly, capped swarm cells, and empty comb. If it looks fine (no swarm cells, larvae, room in the supers), close up gently and get out.

Plan manipulations and swarm prevention procedures ahead of time. Your scale record will convince you that drastic or lengthy manipulations can have major impact on colony behavior for that entire day.

Swarm prevention procedures that have significant impact on nectar/pollen collection behavior should be avoided if possible, even if the impacts might be temporary. This includes re-queening during the nectar flow, temporary queen removal/caging, and the like. Removal of frames of bees and brood (not the queen), and substitution with foundation or drawn comb have minimal impact on collection, but you will want to weigh the collection of new items before you put them in, and weigh the removed items, and note the difference. Remember, our object is to try to keep the nectar foraging activities of the colony steady throughout the spring.

Several previous articles have recommended a “minimal management” approach for scale colonies (e.g. Burgett, 1987 Gleanings in Bee Culture 115, 694-697.) which included natural queen rearing, but maintaining extra supers at all times. Several of those were written before mites, and the rationale was to include the natural over-wintering and spring build-up of the colony as one of the environmental variables to be monitored, along with the weather, climate, and foraging conditions. The interest was on colony yield, and the condition of the colony was treated as a component of natural variability; the timing of the nectar flows was of secondary interest. This is not quite what we are doing here. Here, the idea is to have the colony of bees at roughly even strength from one week to the next, so that it can faithfully collect any available nectar in an amount that the scale can detect, and thereby record the timing of the nectar flows. This calls for keeping the colony healthy, queen-right, and strong.

Bottom or top supering is always a matter of opinion at gatherings of beekeepers. I exchange several new frames of comb with frames that are being worked to provide empty space next to the excluder. I use an excluder. When the first supers go on, the bottom-most super goes under the queen excluder until the queen lays in a frame or two. When this occurs, usually in a week or so, I find her and move her down into the brood chamber, and put the excluder between the brood chamber and that first super with larvae. The bees readily go up through the excluder to tend the brood, and the brood in that super will have emerged and been replaced with honey long before harvest time.

Special Cases

Swarm, Death of Queen, Disease

The most likely special case is that the queen dies, or the colony swarms, despite your best attempts, or the colony becomes mite ridden. For these conditions, the recommendation is to 1) note it in the log, then 2) switch the colony with a substitute colony from your apiary as soon as possible. Pick one which is in the nectar collecting mode if possible. Unless your apiary is extremely level everywhere, it may be easier to move the colony rather than the scale (but only if both colonies are healthy). During the day, with a friend if possible, record the weight, pick up the colony from the scale and move it adjacent to the replacement. If you and your friend are strong and have a hive mover this can be accomplished in a few minutes, otherwise you will have to break each down into more convenient units. Move the replacement onto the scale, record the weight. Then put the former scale colony onto the replacement stand. The change in weight is treated like a manipulation as above. Field bees will return to their former location, so the gain/loss will be suspect for a day or two (and for at least the week prior to swarming as well). The alternatives are to buy and install a new queen, or wait for the emergency or virgin queens to emerge, mate, and begin laying. That long delay results in a considerable period (10-30 day) hiatus in normal foraging, which will invalidate the record for following the nectar flow, likely for that spring. You need to decide what you want to do for the swarmed colony, but the quick substitution minimizes the impact to your scale record.

If you can't supply a substitute colony, then note it in the log, remove all cells, search for any virgins that may have already emerged, and get a new queen installed ASAP.

Hive Beards

When the colony is very strong, and the weather is very warm and humid, bees cluster on the "front porch" for relief. This is called a hive beard (not to be confused with the bee beard stunt), and is a sign that maybe you need to add a super. It also might mean that the bees hang down off the scale platform and are resting on the scale base, resulting in a low weight by a pound or so. You might want to encourage them to go in with a little smoke, and put a new super on the next day, but otherwise you can forget about it.

Bees under the bottom board, or under the scale.

I have had bees cluster under the screened bottom board, but above the scale platform. This was not a problem for weighing, but it tended to defeat the purpose of the screen since any mite that fell through had lots of bees to climb onto. I blocked the slit with a small piece of 8 mesh wire screen after blowing them out. On one occasion I had a swarm (not from the scale colony) elect to take up residence under the platform scale base, amidst all the scale works. I lost some days until I had time to clean it out and relocate the swarm. There is no good way to prevent this – the gaps between the platform and scale body, and under the cast iron body itself, are necessary for proper functioning.

Preparations for Harvesting

Over-supering will likely result in lots of partially filled frames of ripening nectar/honey once the flow ends, making a nice clean harvest difficult. We all like those colonies with 2-5 supers of fully capped honey, little to no burr comb between them, and the top brood box well stocked as well, but such will not be the case with the scale hive if you have done your job right. You are still well ahead of the normal bloke, however, because you have a scale hive. You can make life a little easier when you notice that gains are steadily decreasing and the flow is beginning to shut down. Now you can combine mostly filled frames into one super, brushing all the bees off, and put that super on a colony that has capped most frames and is making honey-filled burr comb in between them, and hope that it finishes the added frames off. Remember to leave lots of unfilled comb on the scale colony. You can even begin to crowd down your other colonies as well, now that you have a scale hive and can see that the flow is rapidly tapering off! See, all that effort has some practical benefit!

Harvesting

The only comment here is that you should leave a partially-filled but mostly empty super on the colony after you remove the crop. This is to provide adequate room for any potential summer flows.