Updated on October 4th, 2021
Seasonal requirements drive most beekeeping management tasks.
Spring months are among the busiest time of year for beekeepers and bees alike. A colony’s progress in the spring sets the stage for the rest of the year.
Spring beehive management includes:
- Examining, cleaning, and storing hives that did not survive winter (dead out hives),
- Undoing hive winterization on surviving hives,
- Reversing hive boxes so brood is on the bottom,
- Replacing old, dark comb frames with new frames and foundation,
- Installing new bees, if any,
- Feeding bees that are short on stores,
- Assessing the health and productivity of the queen,
- Monitoring the colony for potential swarming,
- Setting up swarm traps to capture new bees,
- Providing expansion space as needed,
- Checking and treating for varroa mites, and
- Adding honey supers.
This article describes spring beehive management tasks in more detail.
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Timing Spring Management Of Beehives
Spring management times can vary based on your specific location.
Here in the northeast U.S., spring-like temperatures can occur in January and February, spurring hive activity.
Unseasonably warm weather may provide an opportunity to do a cursory inspection of a hive and check food stores. However, wait until spring has genuinely arrived before manipulating hives. (In recent years, some of our worst winter weather came in March.)
Follow the climate in your area. With consistent temperatures above 60° F (
Examining, Cleaning, And Storing Dead Outs
What is a dead out?
A dead out is a hive where the entire colony has died. While entire colonies may die at any time from various causes, many losses occur over the winter.
According to the Bee Informed Partnership, “During Winter 2020-2021 (1 October 2020 – 1 April 2021), an estimated 32.2% of managed colonies in the United States were lost.” Backyard beekeepers tend to experience higher loss rates than sideliners and commercial beekeepers.
Examining Dead Out Hives
Winter dead outs become painfully apparent in the spring. Temperatures rise, and you expect to see bees emerging for cleansing flights and foraging. No such activity is a sign the colony did not survive.
Opening a dead out is very discouraging. It feels like a failure on the beekeeper’s part and a significant loss of time and money invested.
But everyone has dead out hives. So take the opportunity to learn what you might have done differently.
Examine the colony for signs of why it died.
Look for signs of pests such as varroa mites, small hive beetles, or wax moths that may have hastened the colony’s demise.
Are the bees dead on frames with their heads buried in the comb? This is a sign that they may have starved. Even if there is plenty of honey left in the hive, the cluster may have been too small to stay warm and move to the food.
Are there signs of a mouse infestation?
See if bees are deformed, indicating a disease from varroa mites.
American Foul Brood (AFB) is a disease that requires quick and extreme action to prevent its spread.
If you suspect AFB, the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs suggests making the hive bee-tight and moving it out of the apiary to a secure location. Ask your state inspector or experienced beekeepers for help in assessing the situation.
Discovery of AFB requires that you burn the infected hive, among other steps, to protect bees in the area.
Nosema, caused by a spore-forming fungus, is another serious problem that can kill a hive. BeeAware explains that Nosema can “cause reduced colony health, population and performance, which can ultimately result in the colony dying.”
Signs of bee dysentery around the hive indicate possible Nosema. However, to determine if the colony had Nosema requires testing. Check with your local bee association of state inspector for inspection services.
If you can determine the likely cause of death, you may be able to adjust your hive management to avoid future problems.
Check out NYBee Wellness’ Winter Dead Out Diagnosis Key for a handy examination guide.
Cleaning And Storing Dead Outs
Once you have done a hive autopsy, clean out the hive by disposing of the dead bees away from other hives.
Barring a determination of AFB or Nosema, you can reuse boxes and frames.
Remove the dead out equipment from the beeyard.
Scrape and clean woodenware as needed. Consider sanitizing boxes and frames by placing them in a diluted bleach solution (5 parts water to 1 part bleach) for about 15 minutes.
Some beekeepers freeze comb and honey to kill any wax moth eggs.
Undo Winterization Of Surviving Hives
In the spring, remove any insulation or other wrapping around surviving hives. Next, it is time to take off winter feeders, quilt boxes, and mouse guards.
You can leave entrance reducers until you determine that the colony is relatively strong.
Reverse Hive Boxes
As weather permits, it is time to break down the hive boxes. Clean the bottom board of any dead bees and debris. Check for signs of pests.
Upon opening a hive in spring, you are apt to find that the cluster has moved into the uppermost box where the queen may be laying eggs.
Move this uppermost box to the bottom of the stack for the coming season.
With the reduced population coming out of winter, remove extra boxes and store them for later use.
Spring is also an excellent time to remove and replace older, dark comb with new foundation.
Install New Bees
If you ordered new bees, they will arrive in the spring. Install them in a hive just as you did with your first colony.
Use extra frames of drawn comb to give your new bees a jump start.
Feed Bees If Needed
Feeding sugar syrup and pollen supplements to new bees helps them build comb faster.
Overwintered colonies may have some honey left from the prior year. If not, consider feeding those colonies also until nectar and pollen are widely available.
Bees often stop accepting food supplements once nature provides enough material.
Assess The Health Of The Queen
As a queen ages, her productivity eventually wanes.
Inspect the hive for eggs, larvae, and a compact pattern of capped brood. The colony population needs to ramp up in spring to produce enough honey for both you and the bees.
If the queen is failing, your best option is to replace her.
Checking the status of the queen is something you should do regularly regardless of the season.
Learn more! See our article for more information on how to determine if your hive is queenright.
Monitor The Hive For Signs Of Swarming
Swarming is a natural occurrence by which bees form a new colony and expand their population. The queen leaves a hive with about half the bees (including some drones). Before swarming, the colony begins the process of raising a replacement queen for the bees that remain.
Swarm cells to raise a queen often appear on frame bottoms. However, Queen cells or cups may be anywhere on a brood frame.
Losing half a colony to swarming sets back the colony’s growth.
Attempt to stop swarming by:
- Adding a box to expand space,
- Removing any swarm and queen cells, or
- Splitting the colony by contributing open brood and queen cells to another hive, along with nurse bees and some food.
A split impedes the contributing colony’s growth but lets you keep the bees and get a new hive.
You may see the colony build queen cells and then destroy them once they decide a new queen is unnecessary.
Set Up Swarm Traps
Although you may lose some bees to swarming, you can also trap some bees to add to your apiary. Set up bait hives in the spring.
Learn more! See our article What Is A Swarm Trap? for more information on how catch bees at minimal cost.
Provide Expansion Space As Needed
Even without potential swarming, your colony’s population may explode in the spring.
Once the uppermost box is around 60 – 70% drawn out with wax comb, add a new box.
If you add boxes too soon, the bees will be slow to move into them. Others, like small hive beetles, may move in to unattended boxes. A strong colony making use of a new box will often control these infestations.
Checking And Treating For Varroa Mites
Left unchecked, the varroa destructor mite population in a hives grows exponentially. The mites can overwhelm and devastate your bee colonies.
Varroa feed on host larvae and bees leading to a parasitic disease called varroosis. Varroa mites are nearly universally present in bee colonies.
Varroa infestations can be kept in check with organic or synthetic miticides. However, many of these chemical treatments have usage restrictions based on temperatures and the presence of honey supers.
In light of these restrictions, it is wise to determine if treatment needed before temperatures get too high and with plenty of time before honeyflow.
Learn more! See our complete guide to varroa mites for information on to test for varroa mites and the various options for controlling them.
Also, see our article on how to choose the best varroa mite treatment based on your circumstances.
Begin Adding Honey Supers
By late spring, a healthy colony will have filled most of 2 deep, 10-frame boxes with brood in the center frames. Nectar, honey, and pollen will be placed on the brood frames but mostly filling outer frames. Once the second deep reaches about 70% of capacity, it is time to add honey supers.
Note: Some beekeepers use only one deep brood boxes. Others may use two 8-frame deep boxes. Still others, using all medium boxes, may set aside three boxes for brood. Regardless, add honey supers before your upper brood box reaches capacity.
If honeyflow has not begun, it will shortly.
Honeyflow (or honey flow) is the time of year when nectar producing plants are abundant. Nectar, a key ingredient of honey, is collected by foraging bees for conversion to honey.
Honey supers are where bees store excess honey. This excess will include the honey you harvest and some of the honey you may leave for bees to survive winter.
Many, but not all, beekeepers place a queen excluder between the upper brood box and the first super.
The queen excluder has openings designed to permit passage of worker bees between brood boxes and supers. The queen, with her larger body, cannot access the supers. Thus, no brood gets into the supers.
Note: We initially used queen excluders but found that they slowed the progress of bees moving up into the honey super. Without the excluder, we experienced very few situations of some brood in the bottom super. In those cases, we left that honey for the bees.
Continue adding supers during the honeyflow as discussed further in our article on managing beehives in summer.
Spring is an important time of year for beekeepers and bees.
Be sure to clean up from winter and get surviving colonies set up to thrive during the coming year.
Feed, if necessary, watch out for potential swarming, install new bees and give your bees additional space as needed.
Follow these steps and get your bees off to a great start at the beginning of the year.
This article on how to inspect a beehive is part of a series on managing beehives, a beginner’s guide to basic beekeeping tasks over a year.
Dealing With Dead-Outs from American Bee Journal