Timely Colony Management – March

By Clarence Collison, PhD

The essence of spring management is the development of strong productive colonies.  Efficient management requires the proper timing of colony development so that maximum populations will coincide with the available nectar flows or pollination needs.  Since brood rearing is the basis of colony development, management practices must be aimed toward fully utilizing the reproductive capacity of the colony.  In order to have colonies at full strength during a major honey flow, the queen should reach maximum daily-egg laying rate at least six weeks prior to the primary honey flow.  The most populous colonies produce not only the most honey per colony but also the most honey per bee.

In addition to colony strength and proper timing, other key components to productive colony management include: 1) a good apiary location with abundant floral sources; 2) young productive queens from good genetic stock; and 3) proper hive manipulations.  In order to make timely management decisions, it is necessary to understand the basic biology of the honey bee colony and learn to recognize several subtle cues that will indicate current colony conditions.  Failure to observe these signals or interpret them correctly, often results in making the wrong decision.

Colony development is tied directly to the quality of the queen, size of the worker population and is influenced indirectly by local weather conditions and food sources.  Colonies headed by a high quality queen build up faster in the spring and maintain a larger field force throughout the foraging season.  An understanding of the fundamental relationships between colony populations and egg-laying, brood-rearing, and production, as well as the time factor in population growth, is necessary to obtain maximum honey crops.1

Figure 1.- Influence of colony populations on daily egg-laying rate and brood rearing.1

Colony populations are balanced by the colony’s capacity for brood rearing, the time required to develop brood, and the length of life of adult bees.  Good queens seldom lay more than 1,600 eggs per day.  Twenty-one days are required for the brood to complete development.  Adult bees live from 4 to 6 weeks during the active foraging season, and their longevity is influenced greatly by the intensity of brood rearing.  Bees in small colonies that rear proportionately a large amount of brood have shorter lives than bees in more populous colonies.1 The amount of brood reared is influenced by the queen’s egg laying capacity, the colony’s population, the supply of both pollen and honey, and the available comb space and its position.  There is a basic relationship between the amount of brood and the adult population that determine the rate of colony growth.  The ratio between sealed brood and colony populations decreases 10 to 14 percent for each increase of 10,000 bees, whereas, the average daily rate of egg laying by the queen increases with a rise in population up to 40,000 bees (Figure 1.).  A large colony produces more brood than a small colony yet has a higher proportion of its bees available for gathering nectar and pollen.  The production per unit number of bees in the colony is considerably greater in stronger colonies than in smaller colonies, since proportionately fewer bees are engaged in brood rearing.

During a 2 week’s honey flow, a full strength colony with 60,000 bees will normally produce 50 percent more honey than four small colonies each with 15,000 bees (a combined total of 60,000 bees).1  Therefore, your basic management plan should be to have peak colony populations coincide with the major nectar flows of your area.

  1. Farrar, C.L.    Productive management of honey bee colonies.  Am. Bee J.  108 (3): 95-97.