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.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

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

Comments

karen
Reply

I live in southern Florida and this is my first year for bees. It is different for the bees in a warm climate? Do they still decrease even if the weather is still warm?

Rusty
Reply

Karen,

Honey bees still have a yearly cycle but it is less pronounced in perpetually warm climates. In some areas the queen continues to lay all year and may even produce drones most of the year. Average nighttime temperatures make a big difference.

Anthony "TONYBEES" PLANAKIS
Reply

Rusty…… I am speechless!!!!! You (as usual) so hit the nail on the head!!!! I was just talking about this tonight to a beekeeper bud. So well written!!!
Thank you!!!

TONYBEES!!!

Rusty
Reply

Tonybees,

And I (as usual) am flattered! Thank you.

Neill
Reply

Always interesting reading your articles. Often very funny, never boring. Usually informative :) Interesting also, changing the seasons six months, compared to here in the southern hemisphere, although my part of NZ doesn’t see the winter extremes that CAN and USA have!

Thanks for your efforts, stings, knowledge and information that the greater community can relate to :)

Lisa G.
Reply

Thanks for that post. Really good info. I don’t have a hive yet, I feel that I am not knowledgeable enough yet and don’t want to kill any bees. I think maybe next season I will be ready. I read every one of your posts and have been reading for close to two years now. Read as many books as I can on beekeeping, some are great, some are not. But your blog has helped me immensely. Thanks so much. The pictures in this blog are fabulous. What
camera and lens do you use?

Rusty
Reply

Lisa,

I use a little Canon Rebel XSi with a Tamron 180 mm macro.

Nancy Celani Baker
Reply

Dear Ms. Rusty,

Thank you for your post. I have been beekeeping for 3 years now, and am still in a learning curve. Timing is difficult for me, and your post explained one of the basic precepts of bee life in terms I can understand and remember: winter solstice starts the increase, summer solstice starts the decrease. Now that I have that under my belt the beekeeper’s chore calendar makes more sense. And I think this will help me better understand the whys of what to do when.

VeesBees
Reply

Your blog was with me in the middle of the night when I had to move my hive ASAP – my husband and I had your blog on the ipad as we zoomed across town to pick up the hive before the chemical sprayers came (was originally told the garden was to be completely organic. BUT, things changed.) Anyway, they are now happily settled in my own yard and there are NO chemicals here at all.

Reading today’s post, a great deal of info, perspective and experience that we are blessed to have you share with us. Thanks so much.

Rusty
Reply

Thank you! It is always motivating to hear that people actually use the site. I’m so glad you were able to rescue your bees from the sprayers.

Bessie
Reply

Thanks Rusty for a wonderful helpful site. I am hoping to get my bees for starting beekeeping in two weeks or so. I am worried now that they won’t have built up before winter. Will I be ok at this stage do you think? I live in mid-west Ireland. If I can keep them alive over winter it would be fantastic and give me great joy too. Thanks again. Bessie

Rusty
Reply

Bessie,

I don’t know enough about the climate and flora of Ireland to give you an answer. Perhaps you can contact a local beekeeper and ask the same question. It may be necessary to supplement them for the winter, but please ask someone familiar with your area first.

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