honey bee behavior

The winter solstice: day one of bee season

Here in the northern hemisphere, your calendar may tell you it’s the first day of winter, but from a bee’s perspective, it’s the first day of the new season. Like many plants and animals, bees are affected by changes in day length. Immediately after the winter solstice, when the hours of daily sunlight start to increase, the colony begins to change and bee season begins.

How the bees assess the day length is not clear, after all, they live inside a dark cavity. However, within a few days of the winter solstice, the worker bees slowly begin to raise the temperature of the brood nest from a cool resting temperature of 70-75° F (21-24°C) to the brood rearing temperature of about 95°F (35°C). This increase in warmth spurs the queen to lay eggs. She will build a small brood nest and gradually, over the course of many weeks, increase the size of her nest. If all goes well, the hive population will explode with the first warm days of spring.

The first of two parts

The stretch from December till June is half of the yearly cycle. In temperate North America, the bee colony is at its smallest in late December. After the winter solstice, it gradually starts to rebuild. The queen lays more eggs, there is more activity in the nursery, and the population slowly increases.

By the end of June, most colonies are as strong as they are likely to get. Basically, the six months from late December through June are times of increase, with the summer solstice marking the apex.

The second part, from late June to mid-December, is the season of decrease. During the months of late June through late December, colonies in the northern hemisphere shrink, growing smaller and smaller until the shortest days of winter.

Solstice to solstice

Sure there are variations and fluctuations depending on local climate, weather patterns, and individual colonies, but the trend is six months of increase and six months of decrease. I read recently that the response to photoperiod (increase or decrease of daylight) is much less in honey bees than in some other insects. But regardless of how it works, you can see the yearly fluctuations in your colonies.

Up through June, beekeeping is as easy as breathing. In most cases, the rate of growth in your hive is greater than the growth of most predators and parasites. You wonder, “What’s all the fuss about mites?” You don’t see them anywhere. “Are beetles and moths really a problem?” You wonder what’s so hard about raising queens, catching swarms, or making honey. Like a rising market, everything looks rosy. The whole beekeeping thing is a piece of cake.

By the beginning of July, things start to change. Much of the continent is headed toward a nectar dearth. Almost imperceptibly the ratio of problems to bees shifts. Swarms virtually cease. The swarms that are cast are usually small or weak. Just as the poem says, “A swarm in July is not worth a fly.” Splits take longer to build up. It’s a little harder to raise good queens. Honey production slows to a crawl. Even flowers that are in bloom may have less nectar because rainfall has dropped and temperatures climbed.

New problems arise. Your bees spend all their energy fanning. Robbing honey bees appear out of nowhere. Marauding yellowjackets and hornets case your hives looking for a meal. Your sweet little honey bees suddenly become skittish and would rather you stay away. Your neighbors complain about bees in their pool and hummingbird feeders.

Like yellowjackets and wasps, mite populations continue to grow, even while your honey bee populations are dropping. Suddenly, it seems like there is a handful of mites for every bee. Weaker hives may be overcome with beetles. By August, workers are throwing out the drones in a last-ditch effort to prepare for the coming winter. Foraging continues as long as there is something to collect, but it is harder, consumes more energy, and takes more time.

To manage bees, think about the calendar

New beekeepers often ask why their bees are doing one thing just when they are expecting the opposite. If that happens, stop and think. Look at the calendar. Are your colonies in an increasing phase or a decreasing one? More often than not, a look at the date will help you understand what is going on with your colony.

Just remember that building occurs from the winter solstice to the summer solstice, and contraction occurs from the summer solstice to the winter one.

Also, keep in mind that the solstice is not like a switch. Bees are not one way on the 21st and a different way on the 22nd, but the change is sure to come. The seasoned beekeeper knows this intuitively, but a new beekeeper needs to be aware that change is in the wind. Remember: beekeeping doesn’t take much of your time, but your timing is everything. Mark your calendar in red.

The next solstice is Tuesday, June 21, 2022.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

32 Comments

  • Great text.
    I’m close to the equator, here I always make my calendar for the rains and monitoring the colonies.
    But, now I will also look at the solstice.
    Thanks for the information.

  • Argumentatively speaking, calling the solstice the first day of winter is a media thing, possibly even an American media thing. The solstice is traditionally MIDwinter day. Winter, of course, is at least as local as beekeeping. Also, it’s convenient to call all of December, January, February winter.
    Of course I am only arguing about “winter”, not anything about bees. I totally trust you on bee knowledge.

  • Rusty,
    Thank you for that, We do need to be reminded or have matters emphasised again for us. For me your posting is a reminder that once spring starts ( here it is Mid Feb) and when it is too hot in July Aug, and as you say, no nectar.
    What you point out so succinctly is that preparation is all important. I have been preparing and setting up hive boxes and other equipment in December to be ready for Feb March. It is absolutely no use painting hive boxes in March.
    Thank you for your really helpful and of course scientific post.
    Michael

  • Great info and really IN PERSPECTIVE. The building up and the declining as the seasons come and go.

    I’m a 2nd time “new beekeeper.” I can look back at this past 6 months and see the bees doing winter prep and now I anticipate the coming spring🌸

  • Wow, as always another great article. I really enjoy reading your articles. For those of us that spend a lot of time outdoors, doing yard work, etc., the winter solstice means a little bit more daylight outside each day. I always look forward to this time of the year. And I look forward to your next article, thanks and keep up the good work.

    • Sheldon,

      Thanks. I swear I can see the difference in day length within a week of the solstice, so I love this time of year, too.

  • Hi Rusty,

    My pal Elinor and I were chatting about how in our area, the bayside of San Francisco’s East Bay, we don’t have a “winter” winter per se. Yesterday 12/22 I had a big orientation emergence in one hive. We hear a lot about queens not lasting long and supersedures happening relatively frequently. Without a true winter brood break, is it safe to think our queens just wear themselves out sooner than in other parts of northern climes?

    • George,

      I don’t know. These days, I hear a lot about shortened queen lives and excessive supersedures all over the country, so I think that whatever is going on is complex and hard to figure out. Still, your climate could be a factor.

  • Hey, I too write a monthly/semi-monthly blog. http://www.thebeelady.org

    Yes, I agree with the honey bee year running from solstice to solstice. You can always tell the summer solstice. The bees tend to be a little “testy” about protecting the hive, as they know that winter is coming.

    The population needs to be educated on the importance of our bees, both honey bees and native bees. I grow for both and write about both.

  • Well, that was interesting, although we should have been able to figure it out automatically. Having it explained just makes it seem simpler. Thanks.

  • Is this true no matter where you are? Spring here isn’t until May sometimes late May. 5 months of preparation?

    • Wayne,

      I don’t know where you live but in the northern hemisphere, the summer solstice is June 20, 21, or 22 (depending on the year) and the winter solstice is December 21 or 22. The first day of spring (the vernal equinox) is March 19, 20, or 21. The first day of spring is halfway through the building stage of bee season. Late May is nearing the end of it. Your bee populations will slowly start to decline after the summer solstice in June.

      • Thanks Rusty. It’s just that the solar season is completely out of sinc with the weather/climate/food season. We can have snow on the ground in May and I have seen frost in every month but July. I’m not any further north than you actually I’m further south but the season doesn’t start until May and June and there’s food into October. Seems like they would be better going of the equinox as a start date. And how do they even know what time of the year it is? For one they’re inside where it’s dark all the time and for another it’s not like they’ve lived through multiple seasons other than the queen

        • Hi Wayne,

          Like most insects, the bees are more sensitive to lengthening or shortening of daylength than they are to absolute temperatures or to absolute hours. It’s the change their bodies detect. They also have internal rhythms that “tell” them when changes are coming. Even bees kept in total darkness know when it’s “time” to do things, just as pupae or larvae of many species know when it’s time to do the next thing. We humans have named the seasons in a certain way that actually makes little sense. Don’t worry about the name, just concentrate on what the bees are doing.

          The bees aren’t out of sync with the weather, it just seems that way. They know they need to do most of their foraging before the summer nectar dearth, which is why most honey is put away in spring. Sometimes they are lucky and have a fall flow, but they can’t count on it.

          I’m not asking you to believe me. Believe what you want, but as you get more experience you will see these things more clearly. I try to save people some learning time by pointing out things that are not at all obvious. Use that information (or not) any way you like.

  • I’m not sure if this is where I should ask this question, but I’ll give it a shot. Date: 1/3/22 Our neighbor was cutting a fallen log on his property and cut into a hive of honeybees. He called us because we’ve recently started keeping bees. We live in Wyoming and the temperatures are well below freezing, plus we have chances of more snow in the next few days. We have tried researching, but have found nothing. What are our best options to help save this hive? Crossing my fingers someone can help. Thank you in advance.

    • Jaclyn,

      This is a tough one. If the log piece is small enough, perhaps you could move it into an outbuilding or garage? Or maybe you could fit it inside of an empty hive? It’s just too cold for now to take it apart and try to tie the combs into a standard hive. You’ll want to keep it somewhat warm (especially if it was cut open) and you’ll want to keep it free of predators like bears and other critters.

      Maybe someone else will have an idea.

      • The log is much too big to move. We were able to get the two ends close together and covered it with a tarp. We are thinking of using other logs to build up around it to protect it and retain heat. Thoughts?

        • Jaclyn,

          I had a feeling that would be the case. I also thought of a tarp, and that might work. I think it would be important to keep the hive in the same orientation as it was in the tree, in other words, the top should be at the top and the bottom at the bottom. This is necessary because comb cells are slanted at about a 7-degree angle to keep the contents (both honey and brood) from spilling out. At the same time, you want to make sure the colony gets enough ventilation so that water does not collect on the inside of your enclosure.

          You can do this! You just need to give it some careful thought. I think it sounds like a fun project.

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