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
See also: Beekeeping after the summer solstice.
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