Re: How to get through the 1st year successfully
I would suggest that you start some 5-frame nucs with some local/regional queens (some of mine were three boxes high). If you want 3 colonies next Spring, have 5 or 6 going into Winter. I buy queens to play with but I haven't bought a package for my own use in three years. 7 of 8, of my colonies came through the winter without chemical treatments ... I don't know if small cell had any effect, I just use the frames/foundation.
You can adjust the ph with ascorbic acid. Get the correct test paper and experiment on small batches. The ascorbic acid needs to be added to the water before adding the sugar to assure that it's uniformly dissolved.
Trying to think inside the box...