Every beekeeper seems to have a different way to mark the beginning of bee season. But to me, the new season begins at the winter solstice—or more accurately—the day after the winter solstice.
Why? Simply because the bee colony is at its smallest in late November and December when the days are shortest. But after the winter solstice, the daylight hours gradually increase and brood-rearing begins anew. It’s not a drastic thing, just a slow reversal. Usually, by the end of January, you can actually see the difference (if it’s warm enough to look).
Brood rearing will happen
I’ve read various opinions on how the whole thing works. Some say the hours of daylight does not cause the change, after all, the hive is dark regardless. Others say it is most definitely the cause. But for our purposes, it doesn’t really matter. The fact remains that brood rearing reaches a low point before the solstice, and increases after. That is all we need to remember.
Many beekeepers claim that bee season begins in April with the production and delivery of packages, but that makes no sense. Beekeepers are certainly busier in April than they are in January or February, but the colony work begins a long time before the beekeeper gets involved. It’s egocentric to think the calendar revolves around us!
Changes inside the colony
Many things happen inside the colony to increase brood production. For starters, the workers begin to raise the temperature of the brood nest. These warmer conditions stimulate the queen to lay eggs—just a few at first, but more and more as time goes on.
Keeping the colony warmer requires more food just when food reserves begin to dwindle. For that reason, many beekeepers like to check on their bees on the first warmish day after the solstice. Others don’t bother to dig through the hive but add candy boards, granulated sugar, or reserve honey to be on the safe side. And because brood-rearing requires well-fed nurses, many beekeepers also add reserve pollen or pollen substitute as well.
Six months of growing
Every beekeeping situation is different, and there is no magic recipe to follow. But it’s important to realize that change is taking place inside your hive. The beekeeper’s job is to assess the situation and decide whether something should be done.
Down in the southern hemisphere, the longest day has just passed and the hours of daylight will soon shorten and brood-rearing will slow down. In either hemisphere, it is six months of growing and six months of slowing, and the further you are from the equator, the more drastic the difference. And then—six months from now—the whole thing will reverse.
Looking forward to spring! Happy holidays and thank you for all that you do. Best wishes in the New Year.
From Kentucky’s world-class poet, essayist, novelist, activist, farmer: notice which species’ buds he chose to stand for the survival of life.
“The longest night is past.
It is the blessed morning of the year.
Beyond the window, snow
in patches on the riverbank,
frosty sunlight on the dry corn,
and buds on the water maples
red, red in the cold.”
Wendell Berry, “Window Poem 14.”
Shady Grove Farm
Thank you so much for all the timely and interesting information on your website. You are my go-to girl every week (and sometimes daily) since early this year. My husband and I are new beekeepers and this is our first overwintering; keeping our fingers crossed we didn’t mess up. Wishing you the best of holidays and a wonderful New Year!
Best wishes to you as well, Marlene. Thank you.
Thanks for a well observed and well written column.
Here in Southern California, my girls are very active. Lots of pollen and nectar being brought into the hive. Today was sunny and 70 degrees and the bees were taking full advantage of it. I did a small honey harvest, and in a week or so I’ll pull some frames of brood to reduce the biggest hive and bulk up the smallest. Hive size is crucial to us urban beekeepers.
Thanks again for your blog!
Long Beach, Calif.
Access or Assess?
Man, ever since I accidentally gave our dictionary to Goodwill . . . .
I have question for all. When I push all 10 frames to one side in a new super it leaves a 3/4″ gap. Doesn’t this violate the 5/16 bee space theory?
No. In fact, after the bees have their way with the frames, you’ll wonder where all that space went. After a few years, I can only fit nine frames in a box, no matter how hard I try to force them in.
Always great information & inspiration! Thanks & Happy New Year!!