Winter is coming and your bees know it

I missed the summer solstice this year; I wasn’t paying attention and it slipped right on by. The summer solstice is important because it signals the end of bee season, just as the winter solstice signals the beginning. “The end of bee season?” you say. “But it’s just getting started!”

Here’s the thing: In temperate North America, the bee colony is at its smallest in late November and December. After the winter solstice, it gradually starts to build. The queen lays more eggs, there is more activity in the nursery, slowly the population increases. By the end of June most colonies are as strong as they are likely to get. Basically, the six months from January through June are months of increase, followed by the months of July through December which are months of decrease.

Sure there are variations and fluctuations depending on local climate, weather patterns, and individual colonies, but the trend is six months of increase and six months of decrease. I read recently that the response to photoperiod (increase or decrease of daylight) is much less in honey bees than in other insects. But regardless of how it works, you can see the yearly pattern in your colonies.

Up through June, beekeeping is as easy as breathing. In most cases, the rate of growth in your hive is greater than the growth of most predators and parasites. You wonder, “What’s all the fuss about mites?” You don’t see them anywhere. Are beetles and moths really a problem? You wonder what’s so hard about raising queens, catching swarms, or making honey. Like a rising market, everything looks rosy. The whole beekeeping thing is a piece of cake.

By the beginning of July things start to change. Much of the continent is headed toward a nectar dearth. Almost imperceptibly the ratio of problems to bees shifts. Swarms virtually cease. The swarms that are cast are usually small or weak. Just as the poem says, “A swarm in July is not worth a fly.” Splits take longer to build up. It’s a little harder to raise good queens. Honey production slows to a crawl. Even flowers that are in bloom may have less nectar because rainfall has dropped and temperatures climbed.

New problems arise. Your bees spend all their energy fanning. Robbing honey bees appear out of nowhere. Marauding yellowjackets and hornets case your hives looking for a meal. Your sweet little honey bees suddenly become skittish and would rather you stay away. Your neighbors complain about bees in their pool and hummingbird feeders.

Like yellowjackets and wasps, mite populations continue to grow, even while your honey bee populations are dropping. Suddenly, it seems like there is a handful of mites for every bee. Weaker hives may be overcome with beetles. By August workers are throwing out the drones in a last ditch effort to prepare for the coming winter. Foraging continues as long as there is something to collect, but it is harder, consumes more energy, and takes more time.

The solstice is not like a switch. Bees are not one way on the 21st and a different way on the 22nd, but the change is sure to come. The seasoned beekeeper knows this intuitively, but a new beekeeper needs to be aware that change is in the wind. The key is to be ready and to handle each situation as it arises. Remember: beekeeping doesn’t take much time, but timing is everything.


They know things we don’t. © Rusty Burlew.

Drones under house arrest

Beekeepers are frequently advised to put a queen excluder under the brood box to keep a new package from absconding. Since the queen can’t leave, the colony won’t leave either.

This is good advice that works well as long as you remove the excluder once the bees have settled in. Since drones cannot leave through the excluder, they are prohibited from leaving the hive as well. Recently, someone asked why they couldn’t just leave the drones inside.

Several reasons came to mind, and I’m sure you can think of others:

  • Incarcerated drones get in the way of progress in the nursery. Instead of helping with the work, they take up space, and the workers have to maneuver around them.
  • Drones consume the food stores that workers collect for winter. Drones that don’t fly probably have a longer lifespan than those on the prowl, and at home there’s nothing to do but eat.
  • Drones increase the heat load in the hive. In a colony that is desperately trying to keep the nursery cool, the last thing the bees need is an abundance of sweaty drones, each with three pairs of smelly socks.
  • If they can’t get out, drones will be forced to defecate in the hive. The workers must then spend time shoveling instead of building and nursing.
  • Once they die, dead bodies will contaminate the interior of the hive. Since drone bodies can’t fit through the excluder, the workers can do nothing but pile them in a corner. R.I.P.
  • From a larger perspective, those drones are an important part of the gene pool in your area. If you prevent your drones from flying, you are deleting their genetics from the local population.

As a beekeeper, it is easy to be overcautious. Yes, you want to prevent your new package from absconding, but if you go too far you will jeopardize the colony in other ways. So as soon as you see your bees hanging pictures and building comb, it is time to get that excluder out from under the brood box.


Drones just love a good top-bar hive.
Drones released on their own recognizance.

A Taranov in time

No, I’m not going to write another lengthy post on Taranov splits, but I wanted to share some photos. The Taranov is my favorite way to split my top-bar hive because the bars don’t fit into my Langstroths. With the Taranov, I can move just bees and not equipment. Best of all, it is fun to watch.

Every year my top-bar hive yields swarms, queen cells, bees, brood—whatever I need at the moment. The bees moved in about four years ago from out of the sky—a July swarm. I don’t treat, feed, or harvest honey, but the hive is my first stop when I need bees. They’ve got awesome genetics.

The bees that overwinter the best in my apiary are offspring of this one feral colony. Go figure. And by the way, don’t believe that old adage, “A swarm in July ain’t worth a fly.” This puppy has served up queens and splits for four years now.

Last week, they were itching to swarm again, and when I checked, I found backfilling in the broodnest. So as soon as the rain stopped yesterday afternoon, I did the split. As of now, I don’t know where they queen is, but the top-bar hive is testier than the split so my guess is she went with the split. By and by, I will check for eggs and try to figure it out.

If you want to know more about this type of split, try these posts:


Just after I finished shaking the combs, the bees were already marching up the ramp.
The ones on the hive will go back in; the ones that collect under the ramp is the split.
A view of the four-inch divide between ramp and hive.
The terrycloth towel gives them something to hold on to.
After an hour I removed the sheet, which is mainly to keep them from getting lost in the grass.

The neighbor lady smells best

When I tally the comments and e-mails related to my last post, I find a variety of opinions on why multiple packages of bees might move into one hive. Many agreed with my husband that the packages could have come from the same hive and wanted to reunite. A few thought the colony that most effectively fanned their Nasanov pheromone would gain the most followers. A majority thought the amount or quality of queen pheromone was the deciding factor.

Personally, I tend to side with the queen pheromone theory, but here is my question: suppose you install two packages in side-by-side hives. Everything is essentially equal but you have a prevailing breeze that blows queen pheromone (or Nasanov pheromone) away from one hive and toward the other hive. Could the inequality of pheromone resulting from being upwind or downwind affect the outcome? Just a thought.

In any case, far from being an unusual occurrence, having your packages move in together seems to be rather common. And when I read the stories and theories, I realized that it could be a number of factors—not just one—that causes bees to behave this way.

On the plus side, those beekeepers who tried to put their bees back in the “right” place seemed to succeed. So the take-home message is this: be mindful that combining of packages may occur, and if it does, go back and separate them.

Since that post, I’ve heard many package stories. Many beekeepers have had packages combine, many newbees had packages abscond completely (new wood with no comforting bee smells is my theory here), one beekeeper reported a supersedure cell built inside the package, several found dead queens, and one had no queen. But here’s the story that got my attention:

A beekeeper in Arkansas ordered two packages and an extra queen from a well-known supplier in Texas to be delivered overnight. When the order arrived, the extra queen was tucked inside one of the packages. In other words, one package had one queen cage and the other package had two queen cages. The beekeeper had no difficulty with the normal package, but the colony that shipped with two queens wouldn’t stay put. All but a few of the bees abandoned the queen that was left for them.

So once again, I’m asking for information. Since I have never seen extra queens shipped this way, I would like to know if this is common practice or if it is crazy. Multiple virgin queens are commonly found in one hive, and sometimes mother and daughter queens are found in one hive, but how often do you have two young, strong, newly-mated queens reeking of pheromone in one place? Did the bees leave in search of the queen that was taken out, or was all that pheromone too confusing for your average bee? Just wondering what you think . . .


New package ready to be installed.
With luck, they’ll stick around. © Tracey Byrne.

Honey bees unite!

Here’s a new take on package installation—new to me at least. If anyone has heard of this happening, I would sure like to know.

Last week Nancy, of Shady Grove Farm in Kentucky, installed two packages of honey bees from an in-state supplier. The bees were placed in used deeps that had been cleaned and prepared in advance.

Each package of bees was given used but clean brood combs along with two frames of honey. The queens were in standard cages with candy plugs. No new wood was in either hive.

The next day when Nancy checked on the colonies, she found all the bees—both packages—in one hive! The empty hive contained the caged queen along with about 100 workers. The full hive had every frame covered with bees, and more bees draped from the inner cover. What happened?

I thought this was fascinating, so I began to read Nancy’s e-mail to my husband. I had no sooner read her introductory words when he interrupted and said, “Let me guess! All the bees went to one hive.”

This floored me even more because I couldn’t figure out how he—not a beekeeper—saw it coming when I didn’t. I asked him why he thought that.

He said sooner or later the bees from one large hive would be separated into two packages, and maybe one of the packages contained the original queen. Then, as soon as they had the chance, they would all reunite.

This makes sense on some level, but I have images of bees from many hives getting vacuumed up into a big barrel and then parceled out to individual packages that are outfitted with random queens from the factory. If that were the case, I can’t see his theory working, but maybe smaller operations package their bees differently. I just don’t know.

In any case, I recommended she split the hive and try again. She did it by moving the bee-encrusted inner cover and two bee-covered frames back to the empty hive. After two days it seems to be holding, although the one hive is still much more populous than the other.

Nancy plans to equalize the populations after the bees settle in and the queens begin laying—an excellent idea that will help the smaller hive build up faster.

So, what do you think? What happened here and why? Does anyone have a theory or experience with this? Nancy and I would love to know more.