Lazy Days of Summer?

The first day of summer, the longest day, has passed. School is out, vacations, camping trips and bar-b-ques are planned. Those long hot summer days at the beach, the pool or lakeside many have dreamt of are upon us. For heaven’s sake who among us is thinking of winter?

Well, it may come as a surprise, but to use a football metaphor, your bees are about to swap ends of the field and begin preparing for winter.

By the first of July (northern climates) our colonies are about as strong as they are going to be and soon the queen will be laying fewer eggs. Though it’s debatable how much of a factor the shortening day impacts the bees, the colony is reacting to a variety of seasonal changes and beginning to adjust their behavior.

Changing Seasons

In one sense, the beekeeping year can be considered as consisting of just two seasons. Winter solstice to summer solstice is a season of increase, summer solstice to winter solstice is a season of decrease. Some beekeepers I know even go so far as to view “next year” as beginning in August. The reason? The bees that will see the colony through the winter and into next year are raised in September and October and those bees will not be healthy if the colony is negatively impacted with mites in August.

The point of all this is for the beekeeper to begin to take note of how the bees relate to their environment. Nature provides the signals to which our bees respond. The experienced beekeeper learns to anticipate what is occurring within the colony and the subsequent changes that will soon be taking place.

Believe it or not, your colonies are about to get smaller. The bees know that winter is coming and if they are changing their plans it behooves the beekeeper to change his/her plans as well, so we can work with our bees and not against them. Anticipating what the bees will be doing next is what separates the beginning beekeeper from the experienced one.

For example, in my hometown area of Central Oregon we experienced a dearth in early to mid June this year. It picked up again soon after and continued until about the end of July. When the weather turns hot and things dry out, the nectar flow tapers off. You may find that your calmest, gentlest colony of girls that you never once had to smoke, all of a sudden gets defensive. This is the result of a combination of factors.

A nectar dearth often means more robbing and that will increase defensiveness. The colony is crowded and likely not as well ventilated, and Yellowjacket numbers, which have been building all season, will soon reach the level at which they can become a serious problem for the bees.

Your season will vary from ours in Oregon, but every beekeeper should become familiar with the subtle changes taking place both inside and outside of the hive, local to his or her own environment.

So Just What Is Going on Inside the Hive?

If the bees are “thinking” about winter’s arrival, what else is going on inside the hive? Well, we we discussed in a recent PerfectBee Colony Webinar,  you may notice that your hives are not gaining honey as quickly as they were when compared to earlier in the season. Of course this will vary depending on your own region, but if they have completely ignored that new honey super you just put on, then you can bet a dearth is on.

Another subtle change is the reduction in the queen’s egg laying and by August the colony is also expelling drones. Compounding the situation is the fact that the bee population is declining while the mite population is likely exploding. The reduced number of brood cells available to the mites for breeding leaves them searching high and low for places in which to lay their eggs. This can result in more than one mite using the same cell in which to raise their young. The result is that your powdered sugar roll mite count of 8 or 9 mites may suddenly jump to 30 mites or more! With fewer and fewer drones in the hive, the impact of the mites falls almost exclusively on the workers.

How does this impact your colony? The exploding mite numbers have the potential to take down a colony quickly and it’s not uncommon to hear of deadouts happening in late September or early October. These deadouts pose a risk to your own colonies when your bees find them unguarded and begin robbing out the honey. With virtually nothing in bloom I have witnessed colonies fill an entire medium box with honey in early October.

The problem is that not only do they bring home the honey but they also bring home the mites. Even if you have been diligent about caring for your own bees, you may now find yourself in the position of needing to take emergency management measures for the lack of mite treatments in neighboring hives. This unfortunate situation happens more frequently than you might imagine.

I encourage everyone to be both a good steward of your bees and a good neighbor as well, by properly managing your colonies mite loads.

Winter Bees

Remember, your bees are preparing their colony for winter and they will soon be raising “winter bees.” A mite-infested colony will not be able to raise healthy “winter bees” in the months of September and October if the mites are not controlled in August.

Summer foragers typically live just 4 to 6 weeks, but winter bees can live up to 9 or 10 months. These winter bees are what will see your colony through the dark, cold winter months when the colony is confined to the hive. If these bees are not healthy your colony is not going to survive the winter to enjoy the lengthening days of spring. Picture honeybees dancing all about the first flowers to bloom next spring while your colonies sit silent; this disheartening picture is often the time when many new beekeepers give up beekeeping.

The bottom line is that beekeepers need to treat their colonies for mites in August or risk losing the colony and possibly destroying other colonies as well (note: this example is based on the northern part of the country).

Sharing Some Experience

In my own apiaries I have found I can reduce the mite load in my colonies and with just a few exceptions, all but eliminate summer mite treatments (until August). by making a single application of oxalic acid vapor in December when there is no brood in the hive and no place for mites to hide. This is especially true for the stronger/larger colonies.

In Summary

Your bees began preparing for winter soon after the summer solstice and the colonies begin contracting. It may not be evident immediately but the experienced beekeeper takes note and anticipates that the behavior of the colony is about to change.

The queen lays fewer eggs, the season is getting late in the nectar flow and your bees may begin to respond to robbers, yellowjackets and a dearth in nectar by becoming more defensive. At the same time varroa mite levels are likely exploding and must be addressed if healthy winter bees are to see the colony past the winter solstice and into the next season of increase are to be raised.

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