The very worst thing about the spring equinox is its proximity to the summer solstice. In just three short months we will begin the inexorable slide into winter. In just ninety days, the hours of daylight will begin to diminish and we beekeepers will begin thinking about overwintering our colonies. Again. It seems like that’s all we do: prepare for winter, overwinter, and recover from winter.
I’m probably more jaded than most. Living up here on the 47th parallel, the hours of darkness are substantial. And because winter on the Northwest coast brings rain with very little snow, most of those months are dark and dreary. Any lumens that might be lurking about get sucked up by dead fir needles and moldy duff.
The season vs the calendar
Oftentimes, new beekeepers fail to recognize where in the calendar their bees are. Most of us, myself included, still think of the first day of summer as a magical moment, a signal of the lazy, sultry days to come. But in a honey bee’s world, it’s the beginning of pandemonium. The days are getting shorter, afternoons are hot, the forage is drying up, and there’s a zillion mouths to feed. I think they feel the tick tock of the clock in a more profound way: winter is coming, no time for fun and games.
Okay, I’m anthropomorphizing once again. But thinking like that helps me remember where in the beekeeping year I am, and helps me to shape management decisions.
Feed disappears in spring
Just yesterday, I decided to check my hives for food once again, especially the three colonies I fed only three days earlier. Even though the hives look the same from the outside, I know by the calendar that the colonies within are exploding. At the moment, my largest colony is the one hardest to get to. Cross two foot bridges, wade through forest muck, climb an embankment, trudge through the woods, trip over tree roots, get slapped in the face with alder catkins. Arrive at destination.
But up there the bees—the ones with the Mt. Rainier view—are humming. The snow-shrouded mountain looks touchable and the air smells sweetly green. I take off the lid and peer under the moisture quilt.
The candy board is empty, even the stickiness is gone. Beneath that, the medium honey super is bare, even the end frames. The foragers are packing creamy yellow alder pollen and the house bees are huddled around an ice-cube sized chunk of sugar—all that remains of the last feeding. Talk about just-in-time inventory control. I drop in a few pounds of sugar and close them up.
Spring is just the remains of winter
So there’s the second tricky thing about the spring equinox. It lulls us into thinking our bees will be fine now that spring is here. But as I like to remind you northerners, the six weeks from mid-March until the end of April can be a bee killer. Temperatures are erratic, rain squalls are common, and nectar may be scarce even though pollen is plentiful. And all this happens just as your populations are exploding. If you don’t pay attention now, you can lose them. It has happened to me and it’s happened to others, over and over again. So go check your bees.
As I’ve said so many times before, I like to divide the bee season into two parts. The expanding season and the contracting season. Colonies expand beginning soon after the winter solstice and continue until the summer solstice. Then the colonies contract from the summer solstice until the winter one. Of course, the schedule varies with your location and your climate, but for a northern beekeeper, it’s a pretty good rule of thumb that can help your remember where your colony is in its life cycle.
The spring equinox that we just passed marks the halfway point of the expanding cycle. The take home message is simple: you can look out your window, but your calendar is more important. Predict what is happening to your colony based on seasonal fluctuations, and you will become a better, more intuitive, beekeeper.
Honey Bee Suite