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Well, in Southern Alberta, mid-March is plenty early to start. April 1st is fine, too, if you don't have many to visit. I don't know how different your area is.

About three weeks before reliable pollen is the rule. Otherwise, you are just raising bees which will have little to do except burn themselves out and eat up your remaining honey and pollen supplies.

As for how much they will eat, that will depend on the colonies and where you place the patties. Strong colonies will eat a pound in about two weeks (+/-) to start, then eat faster as the number of young bees builds. That requires placing the patties directly over the brood patch and on the top bars of the exact frames where the brood is. Don't be afraid to put extra patties on since they will not dry out or spoil and you can move them, onto centre on the next visit.

Any hives which do not eat the middle out of the first patty fairly quickly probably have queen problems. In fact that is how we did early queen checks. We slapped on a patty with minimum disturbance on a quick forst round, and checked back in a week or ten days.

Any hives which were not eating by the end of ten days went onto the truck to nurse yard close to home to be rehabilitated. That is when we began pulling frames for the first time, other than the occasional check out of curiosity on the first round.

When feeding patties, the carb consumption will go up, too, so be prepared to feed syrup or honey if they appear to be getting anywhere near running short.
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