honey bee management

The most important concept in beekeeping

We can divide the beekeeping year into two halves. Expansion defines the first half, and contraction defines the second. The summer solstice, usually June 21, marks the end of the expansion phase. Whether you live in the northern hemisphere or the southern, the solstices mark the boundaries, the points at which colony populations switch direction.

Your beekeeping year is about to change

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 beehive, or how to inspect would land in 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, when, and why—the how-to stuff becomes easy. You can figure it out by yourself because you understand the bees’ behavior.

The honey bee lifestyle is much easier to understand when you look at bees as a part of the natural world, not the manmade one. Honey bees respond to cues provided by nature, and once you understand their place in the ecosystem, their life cycle will make sense.

The end of a growth phase

Trouble arises because we look at the seasons differently 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.

As the hours of daylight decrease, we get weeks of drought when nectar supplies disappear. Your bees notice these changes right away, even if you don’t. Although it may seem impossible right now, 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 implausible, your colonies are about to get bigger. In the southern hemisphere, it’s a good time to check the bees’ food supply because the colony will need 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 acting defensively. 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 cannot 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.

In spring, 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. The first reports of dead colonies arrive 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. Autumn is the true test of a beekeeper.

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 rise 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, so let them. Do not try to drive the train by forcing some other behavior.

When your colony does something you don’t expect, ask yourself if it is expanding or contracting. If you are mindful of that one fact, the rest will fall into place.

Honey Bee Suite

Two phases make up the beekeeping year: expansion and contraction.
To know what your bees are doing, ask yourself one question: Is the colony in the expansion phase or contraction phase? The answer is on your calendar. Pixabay photo.

See also: Beekeeping after the summer solstice.Save

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  • With the blackberry season and warmer weather being so delayed here in the western part of the PNW, how much or would you expect any sort of delay in the usual timing of the brooding down? I know the area where I’m at the blackberry hasn’t even peaked yet based on the number of flower buds that haven’t bloomed yet.

    • Wei,

      No, not really. The population may stay elevated for a while longer, but the cycle is dependent on day length, not availability of forage. Honey bees have to be ready for winter on time, regardless of whether spring was early or late, warm or cold, wet or dry.

      Plants are very sensitive to temperature change, but bees operate on calendar time. This is one reason climate change is so hard on native bees. Native bees emerge on a calendar schedule but some are dependent on specific plants. If those plants bloom before the bees emerge, the bees can starve to death.

    • Thinking about a shift to contraction has me very concerned about my bees ability to prepare for winter–same as Wei. In my area outside of Seattle, the bees have not been able to forage in all the rain, and they missed several nectar flows/ now the blackberries are just barely starting, and as of last week the hives are almost completely empty of stores. Maybe 1 frame per hive with nectar, and NO capped honey. They ate it during the rainy weather. My wintered-over colony is just as empty as my new package colony. Is it going to be possible for them to gather enough in time? I have not harvested honey for 2 years due to similar conditions and periods of dearth.

      • Helen,

        That’s all part of beekeeping. There are good years and bad years, and if it rains during the nectar flow there is nothing you can do. In nature those colonies wouldn’t make it. As beekeepers, we can feed them and keep them going. A big colony can eat a lot of honey in just a few days, which is one reason colonies shrink for winter. If they didn’t, their honey stores wouldn’t last.

  • This is SO hugely helpful. I’m trying to learn to think in “bee-time,” and this reminder is perfect. Thank you.

  • Here in the upper Midwest (Minnesota) we typically don’t get a major nectar flow until mid-June. This year it’s even later. It’s basically maples for pollen to kick off egg-laying and brood production, dandelions and fruit trees, dearth, clover and everything else, then maybe some golden rod.

    Just another example of the old adage “all beekeeping is local” (at least I think that’s the adage).

    • Donald,

      That brings up an excellent point. Even though beekeeping is local, the bees are the same. Regardless of where you live, and regardless of the forage available, honey bees basically live on the same calendar schedule. That is why you can import bees from one area, say California, into another like Montana, and they can handle the completely different mix of forage and weather conditions.

      No matter what kind of forage you give them, and when, they will be ready for winter on time and ready for nectar flow on time. There are variations in schedule, of course, but whether the days are lengthening or shortening is the governing factor. No matter that some areas have short day lengths (northern climates like BC) or long day lengths (like San Diego) it is still a question of whether the days are getting longer or shorter that matters, not the absolute length.

      Likewise, when you are managing bees, it is easier to work with the expansion/contraction trend than against it. So giving light syrup while colonies are expanding can easily speed up the process, but giving light syrup while colonies are contracting won’t do much to reverse that trend. That is why we say all beekeeping is local. A good beekeeper understands the local conditions and how they mesh with the honey bee life style. If he can meld the two together, he will be a successful beekeeper.

  • Wow, I kind of knew this, but this article was so very helpful. This isn’t just one of the countless things I need to understand about bees. It’s the main thing. Thank you.

  • I teach from the same perspective. Understand the why, the how and what follow on their own. Super good information, I always learn so much from you. Thanks for your continued teaching. You are really good.

  • I have four hives, two of them seem to be overcrowded, bearding everyday. Is it to late to split the hives? June 21

    • Jerry,

      I don’t know how north or south you are, but you can probably still split. You may end up needing to feed, though, so keep an eye on them. However, bearding doesn’t necessarily mean they are overcrowded, only that they are hot. My colonies beard during much of July and August, and I just let them to it. They stop once the brood nest cools down.

  • Rusty,

    I read your article every week but have only commented once. But I just have to tell you I love your perspective, knowledge, and blend of great research and common sense. This blog is the best beekeeping information, most entertainingly written, fun, interesting, practical site have found so far. I have been a “back yard” beekeeper in Florida for three years with ups and downs and lots of learning. Next year I am moving to Washington State which I know will present entirely new beekeeping challenges. But, I will watch the seasons, and go from there.

    Thanks for your blog.


    • Cheri,

      Thank you for you kind compliments. Washington State is very different from Florida, but a lot depends on which side you live on. The west is wet, the east is dry—two very different places.

  • Great info Rusty, thanks for the head up and I must give some thoughts to my girls just coming out of the shortest day down here in NZ. I hadn’t given them too much thought lately, but thanks again for the reminder to keep them in mind. Cheers. JIM

  • My queen died/disappeared mid to late May. The bees have built supersedure cells and at least 2 are capped. How will this new queen effect the population of my hive?

    • Julian,

      I don’t think I understand the question. The population of your colony is absolutely dependent on a new queen, and without one it will eventually die.

      • Thanks for your reply.
        I’ve heard of beekeepers requeening in mid summer to encourage greater brood production. Is my situation similar to requeening and will the new queen lay more than if she were an already established queen during this time of year?

        • Julian,

          Beekeepers try all kinds of things to “force” bees to do what they want. In my opinion, you are better off working with the bees and their natural instincts than trying to work against them. Sometimes a new queen will out lay an existing queen, and sometimes not. Sometimes a proven layer and a colony that’s humming along like a well-oiled machine is your best bet. Doing something is not always prudent.

          As for your situation, your new queen may be a good layer or not. You’ll just have to wait and see. I don’t think she will lay more than an established queen, but if you’re lucky, she will lay just as much.

  • This year we have three hives, two are very robust and grew to multiple brood chambers and honey supers. The one I am concerned about started weak and is just starting to show growth when I checked on 21 June. The pattern of capped brood has increased and looks better than ever. If that hive contracts, it is sure that I will lose it. I could just let it die off on its own this winter. Then again I could attempt at keeping it alive into the next spring. Should I just let nature take its course or intervene?

    • Bill,

      I disagree that you are sure to lose it. Because the rate of egg laying decreases doesn’t mean it stops. Say for example, instead of laying 1000 eggs per day, your queen drops to 900 per day, then 800. That’s still a lot of bees, and the colony may actually increase in size for a while, or hold steady. On the other hand, read “Should you try to save a failing colony?”

  • Thanks for bee perspective on seasons, the other miscellaneous information on things like bearding. I’m a first year beekeeper, and was wondering about whether the hive was headed towards swarming, but after an inspection I concluded the clustering on the outside of the hive was heat related and had nothing to do with reproduction (or robbing). I also like your proposition that bees and their fundamental behaviors aren’t local. Bees are great problem solvers which gives them an tremendous variability on genetically driven, instinctive behaviors. They are incredible organisms in the scope of things.

  • You are my true oracle Rusty. Here in the UK most of us newbies are often misled by advice and we end up paranoid about all sorts of relatively unimportant things like hardware.

    We have a period of unusually hot (for the UK) weather and the bees are having a ball hanging out every night on the landing boards!

    Thanks again!

  • Great article, thanks Rusty. The bees here in Melbourne, Australia are well on the way to building up numbers. I even saw a drone or two.

    Yep, it’s not long to spring.


  • Rusty,

    I enjoy your comments, as I have in this article. Now comes the but. Many people are confused by day length, as they likewise are confused by anthropogenic global warming, and whether ice floating above a full glass of water will overflow the glass when the ice melts. Even though we see and experience an event, we often, quite illogically, “know” something different. Before I started growing onions competitively, I also “knew” that the further north one went, the shorter the days.

    Onions are classified as short, intermediate, and long day varieties. Short day onions are grown in the South. Long day onions are grown in the North. I “knew” that didn’t make sense even though I knew British Columbia has longer daylight then Southern California. The further from the equator, the longer the day length. That longer day length in the North, helps Canadian beekeepers have such high yields.

    The seasonal increase and decrease still occur as you stated.

    Aspire to inspire before you expire,


    • Burl,

      I’m not so sure everyone is confused by that. You certainly have to consider the season, and you have to consider where you are. You mention the north and the south, but my readers are in both the northern and southern hemisphere.

      You say, “The further from the equator, the longer the day length.” But that’s only true in the summer. It’s opposite in the winter. What remains true all year is this: The further you live from the equator, the greater is the variation in day length from season to season, whether you are in the north or south. “The land of the midnight sun” occurs at both poles, and certainly implies longer days in summer than anything closer to the equator. But the land of the midnight sun also had darkness at noon, depending on the season.

  • Rusty, Thank you for the info. If a new nuc installed in end of May seems small still, is it too late to add brood frames from strong colony and hope for more build up and strengthening before the downward trend towards winter? Or is fighting the seasonality change pointless and a waste of a brood frame?

    • Jenny,

      I would say it depends on the individual colony. You may be able to boost it with brood frames, especially if you include all the nurse bees that cover the frames. If you add only brood, and no caretakers, there may not be enough bees to take care of them. Remember, though. Strengthening one, weakens another. So evaluate carefully.

    • Remember that anger is a very human concept. Your bees are probably defensive, fearful of someone or something harming their nest.

  • Rusty,

    We’re up in Maine and received our first package of bees the first week of May from Georgia. My wife and I are concerned about population build heading into the winter. Is there anything we can do to continue to help them build population through the first couple weeks of July?

    P.S. we just put our second brood box on last week because 70% of our combs were filled and they seemed crowded. Were we too late?



    • Brody,

      I never add a brood box until the ones below are at 80%, so I would say you were not too late. At this point in the season, however, they will probably ignore the second box. You can continue to feed them, especially if you’re going into a nectar dearth.

    • Eddie,

      You can start mite treatments any time, but it’s important to read about the one you are using and make sure you meet the temperature requirements. Read everything carefully before you start.

  • Rusty,
    You mentioned in the first part of the article bees not moving up to other super. I I have 8 frame and deep with medium. They are full of brood and honey so about 1 month ago I added queen separated and another medium. They still have not began making comb. I have 3 hives all the same , nothing in 3 Rd box. We are in full bloom of clover. Am I being impatient? Any advice appreciated. Thank you

    • Shannon,

      Yes, you’re being impatient. Your bees may not go into the third box this year. It’s their call.

  • I had an enormous swarm move in back in May (30 medium frames of workers and queen). Because there were so many I thought I’d “give them something to do” by putting on a medium of alternating drawn out comb with frames that had no comb. Instead of making comb for worker brood…they just built on to some of the existing frames of comb for drone brood. I was horrified to find (two days ago) at least one solid frame of drone brood and several hundred drones in the honey supers eating the honey. I didnt think drones arrived until later…like August!? I live in Seattle. Yesterday I took out the drone brood frame and fed it to the chickens. Replaced the empty frames with drawn out foundation. Now I’m not sure what to do…because the drone population has spiked and it seems like they are eating all the honey stores. Is this “normal” for this time of the year? I was so excited to actually be able to take some honey this year for myself…but it is looking like there may not be extra?!? The queen looks healthy and robust! Suggestions?

    • Heather,

      Where to start? Maybe a review of sex ed? You know, the birds and the bees?

      You can’t have swarming without mating because the parent colony would be left queenless. Once the parent colony raises a queen, the first thing she must do is mate. In order to mate, she needs drones. So in other words, swarm season can’t begin until there is a good supply of drones. Right?

      So logic has to tell you that back in May when you got your swarm, there was already a plentiful supply of drones. In this area, there is usually a good supply by the beginning of April. Swarm season and drone production peak about the same time.

      Drones start getting thrown out any time after swarm season ends. Like I said, if you just think about it for a second, it makes perfect sense: there are lots of drones when you need lots of reproduction. You don’t need drones in the fall and winter, so it makes no sense that drones would come in August. In fact, the end of July and the beginning of August is when I see drones getting tossed out.

      Usually colonies raised on foundation are somewhere around 15% drones, whereas colonies raised without foundation may reach around 40% drones. It sounds like your colonies have an average amount of drones. Do they eat honey? Yes. Is this normal? Yes.

      Are you using a queen excluder between the brood box and the honey supers? This will keep the drones out of the honey supers, unless you are using upper entrances. I expect that the drones will start being kicked out soon, probably by mid July, especially if it’s really hot.

      Drones can be a pain, of course, but without them, no more bees. So cut them some slack.

  • Rusty,

    I love your website – thanks! This post was especially timely as I was just explaining to my kids the difference between the weather people solstice (first day of summer!) and nature solstice (days are beginning to wane).

    As just a second year beekeeper, I have two questions brought on by a bee mentor visit a few days ago:

    1. I added a medium super per my mentor’s advice to avoid swarming. If my colony is not getting ready to swarm, will the additional super stress them or will they just use or ignore it per their own needs?

    2. This year’s nuc colony is highly defensive (I would say angry, but I read through posts above). Within seconds of inserting a hive tool, they swarm out, and I have learned the hard way the lesson between using garden gloves and using beekeeping gloves. My mentor is suggesting I go through this defensive colony to snub out the queen as she is the reason for their behavior, and then I should re-queen. I am not feeling that I want to mess with this colony too much, and I don’t really want to intervene like that. Does the queen determine the colony response? Can I change a colony’s personality by replacing the queen?

    Thanks so much!

    • Andi,

      There are many issues here that are more related to beekeeping philosophy than actual bee biology. First, will adding a super prevent swarming? Maybe. I’d say in about one case out of 20 it might. But swarming is decided upon weeks before it actually happens, and once the decision is made and the bees start backfilling the broodnest and slimming down the queen, adding an entire mountain of supers won’t change anything. Most swarm prevention procedures like checkerboarding or spreading the brood nest need to be done well in advance of the swarm impulse. I have no idea why these prescriptions, such as adding boxes, persist. Sometimes, I think they just provide the beekeeper something to do so he can say he tried everything.

      But to answer your question, the box probably won’t stress them. They will just ignore it. If they don’t touch it within a few weeks, you can take it off.

      As for defensive bees (thanks for that!) start by reading “What makes honey bees aggressive” if you haven’t already. The comments go on forever, but you might read some of those as well.

      I have to say I try to keep my husband from getting stung, as some things have caused him anaphylaxis (not bees, so far). But suddenly, for no reason, one of my colonies turned nasty this week and he got stung twice yesterday while minding his own business. It’s part of beekeeping.

      But I never re-queen for nastiness, especially when it comes on suddenly like that. If it comes suddenly, it’s obviously not the queen, but something in the environment that set them off. Some ideas are listed in the post above. Usually, the bees settle down as soon as the stressor is removed.

      A certain percentage of a colony’s behavior is due to genetics (the queen) and some is due the environment. How much of each is impossible to know. Sometimes, you may be better of changing queens. But sometimes the colony would have calmed down eventually anyway. No one ever mentions it, but you can make a colony worse by changing the queen too. You don’t know the result until you see it. Whether to try it or not is up to you. I personally prefer to leave well enough alone, and over about a gazillion years of beekeeping, I have never once re-queened for defensive behavior.

      If your defensive colony has been defensive from the start, the probability is higher that the queen has defensive genetics. If it started recently, the chances are higher it’s environmental. You will just have to make a decision.

  • Thank you for the helpful feedback, and the link to the aggressive post. I’ll definitely spend some time reading through the comments as my previous colonies have all been quite easy to work with. This year’s colony arrived defensive, so that’s who they are. I am still defining my philosophy, but so far am pretty much in the “less is more camp,” having had classes with Jacqueline Freeman and seen presentations by Michael Thiele.

  • Have you ever tried post-solstice queen rearing? The idea is that queens that mate after the solstice will lay a lot of eggs in the late summer season and will produce a nuc-sized colony that can survive the winter. Maybe that wouldn’t work so well for you if you have long, rainy winters. Here in VA we have a pretty short winter, so I’m going to give it a try.

  • Rusty,

    Thanks so much for such an insightful article. I am a first year beekeeper and although I have found some resources locally, I find myself without a mentor that aligns with the practices I would like to try. For example, I am very interested in the concept of unlimited broodnest rather than using a queen excluder and have read with great interest your articles about using triple deeps. The closest person I have to a mentor feels staunchly that nothing more than a story and a half is necessary, so I’m sort of lacking in strategy advice. Each of my colonies have expanded into 2 deeps, having drawn and filled about 7 frames in each. I’ve been struggling to determine whether I ought to try putting a third deep on to establish a triple deep and to prevent a late swarm. However, based on your article, I wonder if they may be just fine for the season and if trying to force another box at this stage in the season may actually weaken the colony in the winter. Recognizing you are in a completely different geographic and climatic region (my climate could be considered piedmont/mountain border), can you offer any advice on whether I should be looking to provide more space at this point? Thanks!

    • As I stated in the post, colonies contract in the second part of the year. It is highly unlikely that your bees would have much interest in a third box at this point. Expanding into larger hives is something you would want to try in the spring.

      I have kept doubles and triples, but this year I’m going to try overwintering in singles for the first time. Some scientists believe that varroa gets out of hand faster in larger hives, so I’ve decided to experiment. But from experience, I can say that triples overwinter very easily, but they need to be established before cold weather sets in.

      For temperature management and for parasite control, you don’t want a lot of empty space in a hive. The hive should be commensurate with the colony. So if you have triples, they should be filled with bees going into winter.

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