The beekeeping year can be divided into two halves. One half is characterized by expansion, and the other by contraction. Tomorrow we begin the next phase. Whether you live in the northern hemisphere or the southern, the solstices mark the boundaries, the points at which things begin to change.
The most important concept in beekeeping
If I were to write a book on beekeeping, this is where it would begin. Relatively unimportant issues like how to feed, where to put a hive, or how to inspect would be relegated to the appendix. The how-to part of beekeeping is unimportant compared to the why of it. Once you understand how bee colonies respond to their environment—what they do and why—the how-to stuff becomes easy. You can figure it out without instructions because you understand the purpose.
The honey bee lifestyle is much easier to understand when you look at bees as a part of the natural world, not the man-made one. Honey bees respond to cues provided by nature, and once you understand their place in the ecosystem, their life cycle begins to make sense.
The end of a phase
Trouble arises because we look at the seasons in a different way than bees do. Here in the northern hemisphere, many of us are celebrating the first day of summer. Clear skies, warm water, t-shirts, and sandals. But bees respond differently. For them, the summer solstice signals the long slow slide into winter. The amount of daylight decreases, spring bounty is followed by weeks of drought, nectar sources disappear. Your bees notice these changes right away, even if you don’t. Although it may seem impossible to you, your colonies are about to get smaller.
Conversely, if you live in the southern hemisphere, your bees will perceive a lengthening of daylight. Your queen will increase egg-laying, and slowly the colony will grow and prepare for the first flush of pollen and nectar. Although in the dead of winter it may seem impossible, your colonies are about to get bigger. In the south, it’s a good time to check their food supply because the colony will consume more as it grows.
Easing your bees into the next season
Some researchers say honey bees respond directly to changes in daylight, while others say they don’t. But regardless of how it works, we know that brood rearing increases soon after the winter solstice, and decreases soon after the summer solstice. You won’t notice it right away, of course. There is a lag between what the bees do and what we see. However, if you understand what is occurring within the colony, you can predict what happens next. Acting on that knowledge is called beekeeping.
In July new beekeepers often complain that their bees won’t move up to another super, won’t store any honey, or are beginning to act defensive. They want to know if they should re-queen or “force” the bees into another super. Others continue to fret about swarming even though swarm season is over and their bees are much more likely bearding than swarming.
But once a beekeeper understands his colony is no longer in expansion, he can help ease them into winter rather than forcing them to do something unnatural. The same holds true in winter. Although you can’t see inside your colony in winter, you can see your calendar. After the winter solstice, it’s time to ease your colony into spring, providing whatever they might need.
Spring is unfairly deceiving
Spring is deceiving to new beekeepers because spring is so easy. In spring, colonies are growing and reproducing like mad. You almost can’t fail to have a booming colony, even if you know nothing about bees. All the talk you’ve heard about mites, brood diseases, and starvation seems ridiculous. It’s easy to think your bees are different. Your bees don’t have these problems, and you don’t need to monitor for mites or check stores.
Even July is pretty easy because your colony benefits from bees raised in June. Reports of dead colonies start arriving at the end of August, soon after the number of mites per bee skyrockets. This happens because the rate of mite reproduction continues merrily along while the amount of bee brood drops off sharply. Compared to spring, autumn is the true test.
The beekeeping text by Caron and Connor, Honey Bee Biology and Beekeeping, has a nice seasonal population graph for temperate regions (p. 58). It shows populations spiking in June, dropping at a constant rate from the end of June through September, and then leveling off through the winter months. The populations start rising again in late January. Remember that these changes do not occur rapidly. They are almost imperceptible, much like the change of seasons.
Let your bees shift their priorities
The take-home message is simple. Just remember that your bees are about to shift gear. In the northern hemisphere, colonies will soon start to contract. In the southern hemisphere, they will start to expand. When your colony does something you don’t expect, ask yourself if it is expanding or contracting. Think about that one fact, and the rest will fall into place.
Honey Bee Suite