March Beekeeping on the Front Range
While the weather is warming up, March is also the snowiest month of the year in this area, making March beekeeping challenging. This time of year always reminds me of the signs on the way down from I-70. “Truckers you are not down yet. Another 1 1/2 miles of steep grades and sharp curves to go.”
Beekeepers, you are not safe yet. Another 1 1/2 months of snowfall and nectar dearth to go. Many people are fooled by the warmer weather thinking that there must be nectar available. The fact of the matter is that you can still lose colonies to starvation in March. In fact, until the day before nectar is widely available, starvation risk only increases through the winter and early spring.
In periods of cold weather, the only reliable food source is one that your colony can cluster against so they don’t need to move to eat. Ideally, this is honey stored in the comb the previous fall. If that is not available, then we recommend fondant as an emergency food source. You should place fondant directly on the tops of the frames underneath the inner cover. In this position, bees can cluster right up against it when it’s too cold for them to move.
Pollen has been available since the middle of February. In 2016, pollen came in on February 11th; in 2017, February 10th. Pollen sub is now safe to use in most hives. While pollen sub does not contain all of the nutrients of pollen, it can be a good protein supplement during times of inconsistent pollen availability.
Options for buying bees are beginning to dry up. Be sure to purchase bees while you still can. If you haven’t yet, now is a good time to start acquiring the equipment you need for your bees. Continue to increase your knowledge by reading recommended books.
Second-year and beyond
In March, many beekeepers get a chance to do their first complete hive inspection. When the weather is above 70 degrees and will be warm for a few days, it is reasonably safe to get into your hive. If you get a chance to do a full inspection, you should be checking to see that your bees have honey stores remaining. You will likely find brood in your colony especially later in the month. Finding brood in all stages is a good thing at this time of year. Take this opportunity to clean up bridge comb and propolis.
Swarm mitigation can be a part of March beekeeping. Some of the less aggressive swarm reduction techniques include adding supers and reversing hive bodies. We add our first supers (with drawn comb) when we see dandelion blooming. We also reverse brood boxes in particular situations. If your brood is only in the top box, reversing hive bodies creates open comb above the brood nest. Some believe that this decreases the chances of swarming. If there is brood in both boxes, changing their position can split the brood up in odd ways that are difficult for the bees to cover during cold weather.
Varroa mite management
You should begin monitoring Varroa mites with your first full inspection whether that be in March or April. We currently recommend the sugar shake method of counting mites. We do not recommend using sticky boards or manilla folders to monitor mite drop. Mite drop is an indirect way to monitor Varroa and converting your mite drop numbers to meaningful infestation numbers is challenging.
In March, we are very hard on mites. We want to see less than three mites in a sugar shake test at this time of year. Our preferred mite treatment in spring is Mite-Away Quick Strips (MAQS).