This will be a reflective message of my 20-year learning curve. We have no meeting this month so let's have some fun. As I write, everyone is looking forward to temps hitting 50F again following these recent horrific wind and minus chills. Why can't it just remain a steady temperature? I keep bees in VT and NJ. Fluctuating temps is a bigger problem here in NJ.
Now through February is when you should peek under the telescoping lid to see if you see bees or not. If the bees are clustered near the inner cover opening, then it is a sure sign that they need to be fed on top*. The bees are either above their food stock or at the end of it. Ask any questions about this through our Newbee Liaisons. Every beekeeper has lost bees due to starvation at some time or other. It is an avoidable mistake. Late March into early April is when most bees die of starvation, my experience. Their population growth can outstrip their stores quickly. Nothing is more disappointing than to open a hive too late in spring only to find it full of healthy looking albeit dead, starved bees.
How about that message given by Grant Stiles a few weeks ago? I wish I heard this way back when. Allow me to recap what he said and did not say. He answered the one big dilemma every new beekeeper has and continues to have. Let's face it! We never stop being concerned with swarming. Our spring practice is hell bent on reversing hives, even multiple times, just to prevent swarming. How many hours did I spend carefully reversing and equaling out the hive or shuffling them back down ... only to lose out to nature later? I almost don't even bother now.
Oh? Grant's talk wasn't about swarming? But he did detail how he manages his bees in spring for the season. His method happens to minimize the swarming instinct. This idea is transferable to the backyarder. If you are lucky enough to have a hive that survives the winter into spring, then you will have a hive that WILL swarm late May or June. I don't care how many reversals or somersaults you do; a healthy hive will swarm.
The method is simply to make a split. Any backyarder has time for this. Did you notice he put the new queen on top of the frames of the split? It won't take the bees long to figure out that they either don't have a queen below or they still do. This can be recognized by their behavior toward this new queen. I give the bees an hour or more before I put the new caged queen on top. I have waited up to 3 days or more before opening the sugar plug side of the cage to the bees. Reason: I do examine the bees behavior toward the new queen. Yes, there can be anomalies. Too long of a tangent to go into here.
What did I just write? Make a split of your hive which will result in one half needing a queen. I winter with a medium and a deep. No problem... I will give (apply) a new deep to the medium half or vice versa. You can mix / match frames too in the appropriate box. When you do this, it will force you to buy a new queen in advance or you can let them make their own if late enough into spring. The key is not to be afraid. Embrace It! There are lots of ways to enjoy bees besides making honey. You will learn soon enough how difficult it is to make honey in NJ from year to year. Don't let honey be your only measuring stick. You will never forget the first time you dispatched your live queen to improve the hive. Bee aware that I am finding many queens to survive into spring only to be infertile well before any natural supersedure can occur.
At meetings I encourage all to ask questions even though it may not be pertinent to the exact topic discussed. Somebody will know the answer, and everybody is there to help. Every new beekeeper will come to grips with the need to have more bee boxes and frames for their one or two hives. There is no time to place an order when the emergent need arises. Yes, one can improvise in a pinch.
*feeding bees in winter. I use baker’s fondant. I get it from Grant (hint). I use a 2" homemade spacer, but you can use anything you have. I cut slices of fondant putting them next to the opening on top of the inner cover. The moisture from the bees will soften it. I only use it when they need it. Don't encourage your bees to go high otherwise. There are other methods. One box of fondant is enough for at least 4 or more hives. It does last for years or use it for baking a cake.
Don't have a 2" spacer? Improvise then! If you use an empty medium, as an example, you must keep an eye open, so the bees do not decide to move up into it, then build comb. Do you want to hear my story of using an empty deep in Fall as a spacer for a formic acid pad? The pads used to be larger back then. You are not a beekeeper until you have horror stories of your own to share! It happens! It's all in the learning curve.