The Honey Flow is On!

Manuka trees just starting to flower

Manuka trees just starting to flower

Spring has sprung, the grass is riz. I wonder where the beesies is?

Out collecting nectar, that's where.

Spring is the flowering time for a lot of plants. Some flower through summer, some in autumn. But spring is the first. And spring is manuka flowering season.

All the manuka round our home (Auckland) is starting to flower. The manuka further north, in Northland will have nearly done it's flowering (and word on the street is that it wasn't great this year - too wet, washed the nectar away, and made it hard for the bees to get out flying about too). Manuka further south will still be gearing up. Budding up.

So, it's important to manage the hives so the bees are ready and raring to go. Like anything, get 3 beekeepers together and you'll get 13 different strategies. And there aren't any easy rules.

How to identify a honey flow

How do you tell when the nectar is ready and the bees are starting to make honey?

Look for 4 things:

  • the bees are out and about, on the flowers, and they are non-aggressive
  • the entrance to the hive is very active with bees
  • they are building white wax in the hive, which will become the honey comb
  • and if you tip a frame up, fresh nectar will drip out

Why timing with bees is everything

The trick with collecting lots of honey, is timing. So, when the main nectar flow starts you want your bees to be at peak strength. 

If the bees build up too early they are in danger of starving to death.

If the bees build up too slowly, you will miss some of the honey flow - you wont have enough bees to maximise honey production, and will get a poor harvest.

If the bees build up too early they are likely to swarm, and you lose half your colony.

What you want is a large population of workers old enough to forage for nectar just as the nectar starts to flow (called the Honey Flow). 'Large enough' is enough to more than occupy one brood box.

So here are some factors to consider:

How to prevent swarming

Bees naturally increase their numbers, and then half the bees will take off with the old queen, while the left-behind crew raise a new queen. To take advantage of this tendency, without losing half their bees to some distant tree, beekeepers split their hives. This can be either by making 2 full strength hives, or the old hive and a smaller nucleus hive (a 'nuc').

Strategy issues: when to split, how big to leave the hives, how often to split, do you make a nuc or a full split? I can hear those 3 beekeepers having an argument already.

What size hive is best?

Lots of bees in one strong hive will make more honey than the same amount of bees in 2 smaller hives. Makes sense when you think about it - a certain number of bees is required for housekeeping, queen attendance, making the honey, raising brood, cleaning, all that. Once the housework detail is taken care of, the rest can be out foraging.

Strategy issues: How big? How small? 

When to add honey supers

At the beginning of spring, the bees will be starting to make brood. So the frames in the hive will be brood frames - full of babies.

But once the nectar starts to flow, they will fill their frames with nectar, which will eventually turn into honey. So the idea is to add more boxes on the top - honey supers - so they have plenty of room to store the nectar/honey.

If the hive fills up, and there is no room for more honey, the queen will run out of room for eggs. This is called being Honey Bound - too much honey, no new babies. Pretty soon the new generation of foragers is impacted, and the hive will lose strength. So you need to keep adding the honey supers before a crisis.

Before the honey flow, you need to be careful to add only as many frames and boxes as required, so the bees can keep in a small space. But once the flow is on, too many boxes is fine. Better too many than too few.

In a strong flow, with a strong hive the bees can fill a box of frames with nectar in 1 to 2 weeks. So how many boxes you add each visit depends a bit on your local conditions, the strength of your hive, and also the timing between your visits. 

And bees never fill the boxes that are still stored in your shed.

Strategy issues: how many boxes and frames to add to the hive, when to start, how often to check the hives?

What type of frames to add?

This one does depend a bit on budget. But let's assume an ideal world here.

At the beginning of the honey flow, it makes sense to add drawn combs (already with honey comb shape) so the bees can get stuck in straight away making honey. Otherwise they will use their collected nectar to make honey comb. And they will start slow.

It takes several times more nectar to make 1kg of wax as it does to make 1kg of honey. So bees can't make wax unless they have lots of nectar. Which is during the flow. So if you give them a good start with drawn comb they will thrive. Plastic or wax foundation is fine once the nectar flow is well underway, they will be collecting plenty and have the resources to make wax then.

Lots of bits to consider, and many ways to do every single step. Hence the 3 beekeepers and their 'discussions'.