The Beekeeping Year – An Overview
Here we look at the seasonality in beekeeping (different seasons in a temperate climate), what the bees will do at different times of the year, and what you need to as a beekeeper throughout the year.
Whether you live in a cold, cool, or tropical climate, there will be seasonal weather issues. On the whole, weather conditions can both help and hinder your beekeeping efforts, even to the point of encouraging or killing parasites and disease. Now, let us look a little further at the seasons and how they can affect the colonies and beehives.
Winter is the hardest time of the year for your bees and is the time when they can suffer the most losses. Bees can even get hypothermia. While the season, with its cold temperatures, snow, and ice (in many areas), can take its toll on a hive, many problems are also due to the mistakes of the beekeeper.
One major mistake the beekeeper can make is not leaving the bees enough honey to sustain them throughout the winter.
Although we have discussed that supplemental food may be left for the bees, the irrefutable truth is that there is nothing better for your hive than its own honey, especially in the winter.
The number to remember is that between 60 and 80 pounds of honey left in the hive should suffice (some even say up to 90 pounds). Another problem that can cause harm to your bees is bad ventilation in the hive. Warm air from the hive meeting the cold surface of the hive’s roof forms ice, which, in turn, melts back into water as it warms up.
The water then drips back into the hive, creating a wet hive. While the installation of a top hive entrance will usually solve this problem, the hive still needs proper ventilation regardless. Still another problem is failing to check for parasites and diseases in the fall. Left unchecked, this can cause a weak hive, resulting in further problems within the hive and colony in the spring.
After you have done your checks, cover hives if necessary. (This will depend on the region you are in. It will not be necessary in tropical or temperate areas, where severe winters are mild or nonexistent.) As a brief note on honeybee characteristics, it is worth mentioning that bees do not hibernate for the winter. They cluster in the hive. Generating heat by vibrating their wing muscles (without moving their wings), the bees cluster to keep warm.
If there is a brood in the hive, the adult bees will cluster around it, keeping the brood warm as well. During this time, any drones left will be forced out to conserve food. While the honeybees will normally retreat to their hives for the winter, do not be surprised if you see some out flying around on unusually warm winter days.
- Bees will hibernate for most of the winter. On warmer days you may observe them around the entrance of the hive, but generally, you won’t need to do anything at this time of year. (NOTE: Some beekeepers feed their bees over winter)
Spring can be unpredictable because, at this time, especially in early spring, the weather and temperature are still changing frequently and unpredictably. However, it is also the time to perform a few necessary chores with the hive. Spring can be a good time to split your hives.
Splitting the hive will reduce the colony size and will hopefully discourage swarming due to lack of space. Splitting also helps with mite control, as it gives the beekeeper the chance to do a hive inspection. It also allows an increase in the number of hives for honey production. Also, depending on how much honey is left in the stores, and depending on where you are, you may need to offer your colony supplemental food until the pollen and nectar are once again fully accessible to the honeybees.
As far as splitting a hive, it is basically like splitting a plant. When you have too many plants in a pot, you need to remove some and put them in a new pot. In much the same way, when your hives begin to get overcrowded, it is to the benefit of beekeepers and their bees to split the hive. Do not forget that you will also need to queen the new hive.
- When the bees start to become more active in early spring, you’ll want to inspect the hive. Pick a warm day, open the hive and check for brood, eggs, and pests.
- In mid-spring, the bees will be much more active, and there should be a good nectar flow on. It’s recommended that you do regular inspections during this time, perhaps every 7-10 days.
- Check for healthy brood pattern, signs of disease, honey stores and how full of bees the hive is.
- In late spring the brood box should be quite full, and now it’s time to add your honey super (depending on how strong your colony is and how much of a nectar flow is happening you might not want to do this in the first year – we’ll have a video about this for you soon).
- In late spring, watch out for queen cells in the hive, as these indicate that the colony may be preparing to swarm.
- Spring is often a good time of year to do a split.
- Check the honey stores, if the frames are mostly filled with honey that is 90% capped, it’s a good time to harvest.
With summer and its hot, hot days, the colony will need and use a lot of water: an average of a quart to a gallon of water per day, depending on temperature and hive size. While the bees may find water for themselves in nearby lakes, ponds, rivers, springs, and even in temporary puddles, you may also want to create water sources for them by leaving water dishes near the hive or in the garden.
Do not forget to add something for the bees to stand on so they cannot drown. If you have a soaker hose going in your garden, I have found that the bees will use this as a water source as well. It actually works perfectly for them. Ventilation is also very important in the hives. Screen bottom boards and ventilation openings in the bottom will help aid air circulation.
However, if the hive still gets so hot that you notice the beeswax melting, you will need to allow for some shade as well as ventilation. As far as working with your bees and anticipating their temperament, this is basically their time to go out and do what they do, which is hunt, forage, and create honey, while going about their daily hive chores.
It should be noted that, if you live in a warm or tropical climate, you will probably be doing some of the summer chores a bit more often and for a longer period of time than a beekeeper who has a hive in a more temperate or cool climate.
- Nectar flow will often be as strong during the summer as it was in the spring, or can even be stronger depending on local conditions.
- During the summer, keep doing regular inspections for pests, brood, honey stores, etc. You can harvest regularly if the honey stores allow for it.
- Ensure that the bees have a water source throughout the summer.
- As late summer approaches, you will need to estimate how much food the bees are likely to have access to during the fall or autumn, and how much honey stores they will need. This can help to judge when you should stop harvesting. Local knowledge is important here, so get advice from beekeepers in your area.
Fall is usually honey harvest time. Yet remember to leave enough so the bees can survive the winter. If you think that the bees will not have enough honey for their winter stores, then do not harvest any honey for yourself or for market from that particular hive.
This is also the time to once again check and treat for disease and parasites. Preparation for the winter should begin at this time. Efforts such as reducing the hive entrance (making the hive entrance smaller), making sure there is proper ventilation, and installing mouse guards so mice cannot get into the hives during the winter will help your colonies through the season.
You will find that the queen will stop laying in late fall/early winter. This is due to her limited food stores, as the workers focus on insulating their hive. Again, any drones still in the hive at this time will be driven out of the hive to preserve the limited food stores that the colony will have for the winter.
Fall is also the time that some beekeepers will re-queen if the hive’s queen is in her second season or has not been laying well. This preventative practice is due to the fact that she may have as little as a 50-percent chance of surviving the winter at this age. However, this should be done on a case-by-case basis, as you will know your hives and your bees best.
- This is the time of year when you will begin to close down your beehive. Again, local knowledge will be useful to determine when the best time to do this is.
- You may want to remove a honey super from the hive, remove the honey and store it in a dry place for the winter.
- You will often leave a super on the hive for the bees to feed on over the winter. Remove the queen excluder so that she can access the honey with the rest of the colony.
- You may need to protect your hive from snow, very low temperatures, etc. You may also need to provide the bees with a supplemental food source. Get advice from local beekeepers on how best to prepare for the winter in your area.
- It’s important to check for Varroa mites in particular, as a heavy load during the winter can kill your colony while they hibernate. Treat the hive if necessary.
Although there are other jobs that will pop up with the seasons, as well as unexpected things (good and bad), this brief overview of the seasons gives you an idea as to what to expect. It may be easier to keep a yearly calendar of what you need to do with your bees, especially for your first few years with the honeybees, until you are comfortable with your monthly routine. Just remember that it is always subject to change.