Keeping bees after the summer solstice
The first day of summer has the longest daylight period of the year, but then—the very next day—the daylight hours begin to decrease. I always feel like the first day of summer is more like the last.
Of course, that’s just day length. The warmest part of the summer—at least here in the northern hemisphere—is yet to come. But the bees know the truth, and things within the hive are about to change.
The beekeeping year in two parts
In my own beekeeping practice, it helps me to think of the year in two parts. Colony expansion occurs from the winter solstice to the summer solstice, and colony contraction occurs from the summer solstice to the winter one. Now there is not a perfect correlation, and variations occur according to local climate and weather conditions. But still, as a general guideline it works well.
I used to think it was merely a matter of photoperiod, that the bees sensed the shortening of the daylight hours and began preparing for winter. Since then, I’ve read research that claims honey bees are not particularly sensitive to photoperiod, after all it is dark inside the hive all the time. But something is giving them a heads up, and in my experience the bee colony is very different in the contraction phase than in the expansion phase.
What was easy becomes difficult
For me, beekeeping during the expansion phase is easy. The colony is growing and seems to out-compete the mites. Nectar and pollen are stashed away. The hive gains weight. Supers are added. The bees are gentle as pet bunnies. Hive pests such as beetles and moths are kept neatly in check. During the expansion phase it is easy to think beekeeping is a walk in the park.
But after the summer solstice, a gradual change occurs. Egg laying decreases, slightly at first, but enough to cause the number of mites per bee to increase. A nectar dearth often accompanies the warm weather, causing robbing and increased defensiveness. Increased defensiveness means more stings, and summer heat means your bees are more apt to visit your neighbor’s swimming pool and pet bowls. Populations of predators such as yellowjackets, which start small in the spring, are building fast and may start bugging your bees. Although you can’t quite put your finger on it, your colonies are more troublesome than they were before. If it’s not one problem, it’s another.
Becoming aware of the subtle changes within your hive makes beekeeping more predictable and less bewildering. Awareness also helps you devise a management plan. It helps you decide what needs to be done. And when. And why.
For example, because I live in an area with a distinct dry season (little or no rain during July, August, and September), I usually remove my honey supers at the end of June. Then I turn my attention to mite monitoring and preparations for winter. I buy sugar on sale, repair moisture quilts, make candy boards, paint what needs it, and assess what I will do differently next year. I add robbing screens to weaker hives, make sure the bees have a good water source, and make a plan for mite management.
Experienced beekeepers are well aware of colony expansion and contraction, but it takes a while for a new beekeeper to understand the rhythm: the ebb and flow of bees, floral resources, and colony pests. If you are completely new to this and a little bit lost, try thinking of the year as a two-act play, and remember we are now beginning the second act.
Honey Bee Suite