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
I had to go snap a few pictures of my hives as soon as I read this. It is depressing to think the season is so short. Especially here in Kyiv where we still are buried in snow.
I need to talk you you about poly hives. Will be in touch.
Good advice Rusty. In the UK our poor bees are having to tolerate the odd day of 10 or 11 degrees C followed by several days of minus numbers with cruel easterlies and snow. It must be hard on them. I’m keeping an eye on the fondant so fingers crossed we can get through this. I know I’ve lost one of five but the other four seem to be hanging in there.
Thanks as always.
Aww Rusty, you sound like you have Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) aka Winter Blues. We used to live in the UK and I felt exactly like you every early Spring. Great that the overcast, rainy, cold weather is over, but oh no, only a few months before it starts again!
I highly recommend moving to coastal southern California. Apart from the Africanized bees, small hive beetle and long nectar dearths, you might be a lot happier! 😉
I spent eight tedious years in coastal southern California after I took a job down there. Spent the whole time trying to get out.
Don’t forget Argentinian ants, Santa Ana winds, fires, drought, traffic, smog.
I’d love to have you visit, Rusty, but I think you’re happier where you are.
We’re at the start of the spring flower season and have a lot of pollen coming in. The rain this week should kickstart the flowers (both native and garden), but we’ll see.
Enjoy your spring.
I’m in northwest West Virginia where a week ago it was sunny 70 and today there is four inches of snow. My cue to remove sugar blocks is the bloom on the cherry trees and, hopefully, decent weather in the forecast. The challenge is that the bees will be in expand mode and fill any vacant eke space with new comb and brood (in one day!) before I feel like it’s safe to remove the sugar. Any thoughts? I could keep it filled with sugar just to avoid empty space. Seems extreme.
Why not put a queen excluder below the feeder? At least you won’t get brood up there.
It sounds like some more great advise! Ten more days until my bees arrive! Can’t wait!:)
Even if you see flowers that can provide nectar in northern latitudes, the bees may have trouble harvesting it with cold rain or snow that endures for days. You articulate well a problem for those beekeepers who have succeeded with the challenges of over-wintering. Success in winter means more work now!
I read the first paragraph and blurted out loud ” That is so true!” Thanks Rusty. Michael at 47.01 Montana
I love the change of the bee seasons and challenge of the change. It is part of the attraction.
By the way, I loved your antenna article. Learned a lot. Thanks.
Thank you. I first started to learn about antennae by studying native bees, and then went back to honey bees. Honey bees and some of the other eusocial bees have a lot more complexity in their antennae because they have to communicate with one another. And I think antenna cleaners are the coolest thing—so simple, yet so useful.
As a 6-month newbee I appreciate your sharing that bees you fed 3 days prior were on their last chunk of sugar. My 3 hives (in SW Ohio) are requiring at least one no-cook sugar block each week, and I’ve wondered what they were doing with all of it. I even found my largest colony festooning on the underside of the moisture quilt for no apparent reason last week. I saw they were down to a few tiny pieces of sugar, so I put another block in but was concerned about the unusual festooning. The next day I went back to check on them and they were back down on the frames and happily eating the sugar which was already more than one-fourth gone (I added another one). They were just hungry! Maybe they were licking sugar crystals off the fabric, I don’t know. But, I do know I’m glad I check on them far more than some think I should. I don’t know how fast a colony can starve after running out of food stores, and I’d rather not learn that by finding a dead colony.
In some years, my bees festoon off the moisture quilt too. I just don’t worry about it.
I’ve read that a colony can live four days without food, but that sounds simplistic to me. I think it would depend on how cold it was outside.
This is the first time I’ve gone all the way to the bottom of the web page…oh my goodness…rusty is a girl! All this time I’ve had this mental image of some lumberjacky lookin guy with a full beard. Delete, delete…reboot.
Seriously, Tim? Do I write like a lumberjacky guy with a full beard? Hmm?
Tim, you need to get out more.
Thanks for the post. I live in your neck of the woods outside of Olympia so I enjoy and learn much following your blog. I have two hives and after inspecting them over the last two weeks they seem to be doing well. I have fed them some sugar/pollen patties recently and when I check days later it is all gone. It’s curious to me because they still have honey in some of the outside frames. I would think they would first consume “their” food before taking what I provide.
I don’t know if I’ve ever seen an exception. Given a choice between sugar and stored honey, bees always take the sugar.
Now, I don’t know the reason. Certainly at this time of year, the pollen supplement is attractive because they bees usually have very little pollen left, even if they have honey. The other thing is that sugar over the cluster is going to be warmer than honey on the side of the cluster.
That said, there may be an entirely different reason that I don’t know about. But still, what you are seeing is absolutely normal.
As I sit here in North-Eastern BC, staring at two and a half feet of snow and listening to a forecast of up to 15 more inches, I wonder when to put pollen substitute into my two surviving hives. This is my first year keeping bees, and what a learning curve it has been. The crows came back last night (probably the only time that I’m glad to hear them) and the first pussy willows are just peeking through. I really enjoy your posts, they are a wealth of information. Thank you so much.
I like to start adding a pollen substitute when brood rearing resumes, which is just after the winter solstice. Generally, between Christmas and January 15 works for me. They don’t use much in the beginning, but the rate speeds up as you get closer to warm weather.
Living in eastern WA is quite different than in Western Washington.
Thank you so much for encouraging to feed our bees in late winter.
Each of my two hives are on their 3rd fondant patty and I will inspect them again for the need for more.
I had to replace one moisture quilt contents, as it was too moist.
I am just so excited, that after the winter 0f 2017, that both of my hives are still alive.
I think that the learning curve is still steep as each locale and each year is different, and as beekeepers we must be nimble!
I agree completely. Beekeepers can’t live by rules. Instead they have to respond to what their colonies are doing. Yes, nimble is key.
Worst thing about Spring: TIME CHANGE ! hate it ! Great article in the ABJ … didn’t miss a trick. Think you covered all the bases.
Yes, the time change is an antiquated system that needs to go.
This is my first spring with bees. So new, and so much to remember. This is a great basic timeline that I know I can follow. My new additions will thank you, too.
Still have almost two feet of snow on the ground here in New Hampshire and it’s snowing this morning. I’ve delayed putting in pollen patties for a week. I hope this is winter’s last gasp.
I would think they need pollen patties now more than ever?
Hi Rusty, Thanks for the oh-so-true article. Here in NE PA we are a couple days past the Vernal Equinox and still in 20 degree weather with the white stuff persisting. Checked on the bee girls and they were almost out of emergency food. Filled them up and will take your advice and give them a look sooner than later cold temps or not.
So glad you got to them on time! You folks have really had the weather this year.
Thanks, Rusty, for the reply.
Adding to Alice’s comment, above, my bees in both hives are clinging to the underside of the quilt as well. I wouldn’t describe it as “festooning” because they are not laced together, rather “huddled” seems more accurate. My quilts follow Rusty’s design with some modifications. Most significantly — the bottom is made out of the material one would use to cover a screen window vice canvas. I assumed that the bees were hanging onto it because there was something in the pine shavings they wanted, much like the way they are in the fresh bark mulch that I recently put down.
My quilts have evolved over the years, and now I use 1/8-inch hardware cloth on the bottom instead of canvas. Much more durable. I always assumed the bees gathered there because it was the warmest place in the hive outside of the brood cluster. Whatever the reason, it seems like the most natural thing in the world, since lots of beekeepers report it.
Thanks so much for this wonderful site and the helpful information you provide to us newbies.
This is my second winter keeping bees in Virginia. We are currently having temps at night in the 20s and highs in the 40s during the day. I gave all my hives candy boards and quilts this winter which has proven very beneficial. However, this is the second time that my largest hive keeps building comb in the candy board and this year is attaching it to the quilt bottom. They have been doing this for a month now. I removed the comb last month on a warm day and added a box with comb beneath the candy board. They just built it right back. Should I just let this go until its warm enough to move things around? Last year, the hive doing this swarmed twice even after splitting it.
I just let them do it and clean it up when I take off the quilt and candy board. Some colonies do it and some don’t, but as long as they’re happy, I’m good with it.
Since bees sense energy I’d rather read the “best” thing about spring equinox and positive vibe myself as a new beekeeper with my hives first winter who I saw few peeping their heads out when temp was 4 degrees Celsius
Happy buzzin ‘ from Ontario ?
Hi am guessing here. Bees need to add water to the sugar or stored honey to thin it out for consumption. The bees may be drawing the moisture out of the bottom of the quilt box contents to mix with the sugar or thickened honey so they can consume it easier.
The problem with that theory is the bottom of the quilt box is bone dry. It’s the top of the shavings, where the bees can’t reach, that gets wet.
Good observation. I have had some of the shavings be quite moist, so I was trying to figure out the WHY.
Maybe it is a nice warm place to hang out.
That’s what I think. The area just above the brood nest is toasty warm. It’s the warmest place in the hive except for the inside the cluster.
Warm and dry, food close by, no combs in the way so they can cluster easily – that’s my guess. Same colonies that do this aren’t during the day if it’s reasonable flying temps outside, IME.
Instead of buying sugar perhaps wildflower seeds makes better forage?
Well, if you have enough acres planted, and you have complete cooperation from the weather—no early freezes, no drought, no heat waves, no brush fires—that can work really well.