A Year in the Life of a Bee (and It’s Keeper)
Have you ever wondered what keepers do across the twelve months of the year? When are we at our busiest (both beekeepers and bees), and when are we all rugged up, hibernating, waiting for all the magic to begin again? Here is a calendar to help you understand the cycle of the bee and how it effects keepers and their work.
June and July
Let’s begin right now, in the dead of winter. Just as humans are passing up the opportunity to be out and about for the warmth of the heater at home, bees are keeping similarly cosy. During the winter months there is really nothing we can do for the bees as it’s far too cold to open up your hive and check the colony. Actually, it can be fatal to do so: if we open up the hive we can give our bees thermal shock which will chill and kill the brood and make the colony sick. Due to this, winter is the perfect time to make boxes, assemble frames or paint the lids. If you are already up to date, put your feet up and grab a book on bees: you can never know enough about these remarkable creatures and any knowledge you accrue will be vital for when your bees are back in action.
The times they are a’changing! You can feel it in the air, spring is not far away and the bees are starting to increase their activity. It may still be a little too cold to open your hive, but if the weather is calm and above 18 °C you can take your first inspection!
Finally, the start of spring! If you have not already, you will be itching to open up your hive and see how your colony has fared over winter. There are still a few cold days during September, but on that first nice day, go and say hello. It’s also an important time to check for diseases like foul broods. European foul brood is a disease of uncapped larvae. The larvae should look pearly and snow white in colour. American foul brood is a disease of capped brood. Both diseases are notifiable with the Department of Primary Industries. If you are new to beekeeping, or simply unsure, find a local knowledgeable beekeeper as they will be able to help you detect these problems.
This month is one of the busiest months for a beekeeper, whether you are just getting into bees or have kept them for years. If you are going to keep bees this is the most popular time to buy them. The days are starting to get longer, the weather nicer and the frosty mornings are behind us. For these reasons, this is the peak time for plants and trees to flower. Keep an eye on big colonies if you are in the country as big colonies will chew into honey stores, especially the Italian sub species of honey bee. If you just installed the nucleus, keep up the inspections every one to two weeks. You will need to expand the colony by giving them extra room; a super with frames on top will do the trick. October is also peak swarming time, so check your colonies for queen cells. Splitting the hive or requeening with a young queen can also help with swarming, but make sure to check the queen cells before you do this.
This month is also a great time to get bees if you still want to start this amazing hobby. If you received your bees last month they should be progressing along really well by this stage. If you have a large colony from the previous year, November is a great time to harvest some honey! Remember though, bees make honey for themselves not for us so make sure you leave them plenty of honey stores. When in doubt, a full frame of honey for every three frames of bees and brood will leave them plenty. Keep checking for any queen cells as bees will readily swarm.
Ah bliss! The start of summertime and the bees will be in full swing and very active! You should have done so already but if you haven’t, make sure there is cool fresh water accessible for the bees as they will use this to help cool their hive. This is also the time when you can pinch a bit of honey from the colony! Yum!
Bees will have stopped producing primary swarms by this time of year but some colonies will cast the odd secondary swarm. Make sure the queen is laying well and, if required, requeen the hive if she is laying poorly or if the hive has an aggressive disposition.
The weather is hot hot hot! Make sure if it’s over 32 °C that you don’t open the hive as this can stress the colony. Also, there is no need to increase the ventilation as bees will cool their hive. At this time of year we often see lots of bees sitting out the front of the hive: this is called bearding. Bees create metabolic heat and by many bees sitting out the front helps keep the bees inside the hive cool. This is also the time African small hive beetles become prevalent. Beetle traps work really well; I recommend the environmentally friendly ones where the beetles drown in balsamic vinegar and olive oil to keep numbers down.
This is the time when European wasps, which look very similar to bees, become a terrible pest. They are not attracted by the honey but prefer larvae as they are protein eaters. Keep the entrance small as bees can easily defend their hive. March is generally the last month we can rob the colony of honey as winter is looming. And speaking of robbing, March is often a month where there is limited nectar and flowers so the bees can be hot and dry. Keep an eye on what looks like swarming behaviour as your hive might be getting robbed from another colony!
This is the month we get the bees ready for winter. A generous rule of thumb is: one frame of honey for every three frames of bees and brood. If you think there is not enough honey it’s important we give them plenty of sugar stores for winter. I recommend feeding the bees fondant as it’s easily digestible by the bees, super saturated and will last longer than syrup. However, remember this is only a substitute, and is not as nutritious for the bees as natural pollen and nectar, so should only be used as a last resort.
The chills are setting in. This is when we say farewell to our bee friends for a few months. If the weather is okay, usually in the first week of may, it will be the last time you open up your hive until springtime. The stronger the hive now the better they will do through winter. It is important they are as healthy as possible so they come out happy bees once the sun and flowers return in Spring.