What To Know As Spring Unfolds Into Summer
Through the Seasons as a Beekeeper
By Tom Theobald, Colorado
If April is the beekeeping equivalent of planting time, then May is when our efforts start to germinate. As the problems we face as beekeepers have grown, I’ve begun to question what my role should be here. Should I continue to use my 40 years of experience to give new beekeepers a sound foundation or should I discourage them, knowing that the evidence is mounting rapidly that their experience may be costly and disappointing?
I haven’t answered those questions yet. Initially at least I plan to focus on the good side of bees and beekeeping, the happy side that’s kept me transfixed for most of my adult life. I’ll touch on some of the challenges from time to time, but won’t dwell on them…yet. It would be irresponsible of me though, I think, not to ultimately look closely at some of the new challenges we face as beekeepers.
As I say in every beekeeping class, I teach tongue-only-partly-in-cheek, “You don’t keep bees, you marry them,” and because of that marriage, that choice to become a beekeeper, you sign on to confront anything that threatens your charges. If you don’t you aren’t a beekeeper, you are what we call a bee-haver.
This craft isn’t some great mystery, but it’s more than just hanging out a bird house, far more challenging now than it was even 10 years ago, and if you are a bee-haver I can assure you that your bees will likely be dead in short order, one season, perhaps two. In many parts of the country you may see these same results even with the best of care. Getting into beekeeping is like hopping a freight train— you may see the country, or you may be headed for a train wreck, maybe both—but the only way to find out is to hop on. If you want to be a beekeeper and are willing to give it your best shot, willing to spend the time and attention necessary to do it right, it will open you up to a magic kingdom, a rare window into the natural world where you are an intimate participant not merely an observer.
On the far wall of my Honey House where it will be one of the first things I see when I open the door is a bumper sticker I found somewhere years ago—Just Another Ho Hum Day In Paradise.
Of course it overstates things. Over the years, I’ve had my share of wrecks and rodeos. I’ve spent many a long night out closing in bees to protect them from spraying, wondering if there might be a mountain lion or a bear out in the dark watching me work. I could go on with a long list that would look like a script to a Laurel and Hardy movie, one disaster after another, but you get the idea. Beekeeping is farming, just with a different kind of livestock, and because it’s farming, there is always something about to go wrong just around the corner.
Interspersed with the disasters though were the sunny spring days spent with the bees, watching them happily bringing in nectar and pollen, warm summer evenings when the air around a beeyard is redolent with the fragrance of new nectar and filled with a soft hum coming from the hives as thousands, millions of wings fan to distill that nectar down into honey.
Nearly every month in beekeeping is critical in one way or another, more so the warm months because these days represent the productive season. These are the days when the crop is made or lost and the plotting starts back in March, even February, here in Colorado.
If you are in dandelion country, and most of us are, the bees should be bringing in some of their own nectar, but it doesn’t hurt to continue feeding them, even into the summer. If they stop needing it they’ll stop taking it. The queen should be laying well and you should have a nice brood pattern with brood in all stages on two to four frames of honeycomb.
“Brood” is a term that covers all the stages of the new bees as they develop. Honey bees share the same life cycle as butterflies, which many people are more familiar with, the difference being that the life cycle of a bee occurs within the hive. It begins with the queen laying an egg, about the size of a tiny grain of rice, which she sticks to the bottom of the cell, standing up. The egg will hatch in three days into what in the butterfly world would be a caterpillar, a larva. Larvae grow rapidly and at the end of seven days have grown to fill the cell in the honeycomb. They spin a cocoon within the cell and the hive bees cover the cell with a breathable form of beeswax, brown, the color of shopping bag paper. This is what we refer to as “sealed brood,” and your packages should have sealed brood filling nearly all of two to four frames of honeycomb.
The total brood cycle covers 21 days, from the day the egg is lain to the emergence of a new bee, her downy body fuzz matted down from her close confinement. In an hour she will be dried out and fluffed up, looking like a little chick. Her first responsibility is to turn right around and clean the cell she emerged from, and while she’s at it maybe a few more in the immediate vicinity. Then she will begin feeding her still-developing sisters, the larvae. For the first three days the nurse bees eat large quantities of honey and pollen, bee bread, which a specialized gland in their jaws convert to a high octane baby food, royal jelly. For the next four days, the larvae are fed bee bread directly, then spin their cocoon and the cell is sealed.
If you are an experienced beekeeper or if you started a year ago and have successfully overwintered a colony, May presents a different set of circumstances. Your bees are in two hive bodies—deep supers—and are growing rapidly. Bees’ natural patterns are to move upward. During the winter they’ve eaten their way up into their honey stores and the brood and most of the activity will likely be in the second story and the first story will be mostly empty. This isn’t always the case: a really strong colony may be using both boxes, but on average most of the occupancy will be in the top box.
A colony of bees will more readily recognize space above them rather than below, and this has some important consequences in the spring. If a colony is in the top story, bumping the top, they will begin to feel crowded even though there may be a box of empty comb below, and in the spring this crowding starts the bees on a course to divide and multiply, or swarm. Swarming is a natural occurrence in the spring, but as a beekeeper you don’t want your bees to swarm. These are your workers. These are the bees that are going to make your honey crop, pollinate your garden or your fruit trees. If you are keeping bees in an urban or suburban environment, you need to control swarming not only to maintain a strong population and produce a honey crop, but while swarms may be natural, when they are hanging from your neighbor’s door knob or moving into the wall of their house it may be a strain on neighborly relations.
How Do You Control Swarming?
Giving bees more room is the key. If the lower story is empty the two hive bodies can simply be reversed, putting the empty space above the bees so they can move into it. If both boxes are occupied, then this reversal has to be a little more surgical, moving brood frames down and honey or empty frames up. For really strong colonies these rearrangements may begin as early as mid-March and be done several times. Just remember, keep the empty space above the bees.
Eventually though the bees will begin to exceed the capacity of the two hive bodies and still need more room, and May is when most colonies reach that point. This is where the honey supers come into play.
Honey supers are put on a colony for one of two reasons: to provide space for honey storage or to give more room and relieve the crowding pressure. This means that honey supers are often put on in the spring long before they are needed for honey storage, but to relieve the crowding pressure and discourage swarming.
When you do this, there is a distinct risk that the queen will move up into these honey supers and begin laying in them. This doesn’t present any problems for the bees, to them comb is comb and it doesn’t matter if that comb is in a hive body or a honey super. It does make a difference to the beekeeper, however. The comb that has had brood in it will be darkened, and that in turn can darken the resulting honey subsequently stored in those darkened combs. Also, it will require time and additional manipulations to work the queen out of the honey supers soon enough that all of the brood will have emerged before the supers are pulled to extract the honey.
The simple solution to this is a device beekeepers designed many years ago for just this purpose—a queen excluder. A queen excluder is a frame the size of the outside dimensions of the hive, with parallel bars spaced so workers can pass through, but the larger queen can’t. This goes under the honey supers and keeps the queen down below. The colony will have plenty of room for brood rearing in the two hive bodies and the empty supers will take the crowding pressure off and discourage swarming. Like much of beekeeping, this is both art and science. It will usually be effective, but sometimes a slimmer queen will slip though the excluder, and sometimes the bees just have their minds made up and they will swarm regardless of how much room you give them.
Learning To Anticipate
One of the most important skills for beekeepers to cultivate is anticipation. A colony of bees may go into the winter with a population of 30,000 bees, lose half or more and then begin to build again when the days begin to lengthen, early tree pollen begins to appear and the queen commences laying again. By mid-April, certainly by mid-May, the population of a good overwintered colony may be peaking and if the beekeeper doesn’t take some of the steps I’ve described, the bees will be “hanging in the trees.”
As beekeepers we have to stay ahead of the bees, anticipate what’s up ahead. A good queen can lay about 2,500 eggs a day. She is limited in the early spring by the size of the colony population, the number and ability of the nurse bees to feed the larva, and the size of the night-time cluster on the coldest nights (any brood not covered will chill and die). As we get further into March and then April, the colony population is increasing and the nights are warming, so the queen can lay closer to her capacity. If she is laying 2,500 eggs a day, this means that 21 days down the line there will be 2,500 new bees, and the next day, and the next. As beekeepers, we are shooting at a moving target somewhere out there in the summer, the summer honey flows. We want the population of a colony to peak just prior to the onset of the major honey flow. We want the maximum number of fielders to harvest the crop. If the colony peaks too early then we have created a large number of consumers, if it peaks too late, we’ve missed part of the honey flow. Once again, this is a mix of art and science, this is what we shoot for, but a lot can happen between spring and summer.
This may all sound a little too mercenary, but it isn’t really. For 40 years my bee business was based on honey production, as that’s what paid the bills. By focusing on honey production both the bees and I prospered, their objective after all was the same as mine: honey production. The deal we had was that under my care they would produce more than they needed for the coming winter and I got the surplus. We both benefited. It was a perfect marriage.
So in May look forward to June and July. Know when the major honey flows are likely to occur in your area and begin to shoot for them. If you aren’t already aboard, the freight train is pulling away. Hop on.