While there is an annual pattern to the life of a colony of bees, people can start beekeeping at any point in the year.
While it is usual to associate the start of the beekeeping season in temperate climates with springtime when the population of bees in the hive starts to build up, autumn is actually the best time for a new beekeeper to start.
The first thing to do is join a local bee club and start learning about what is involved. Courses for beginners are often scheduled for the winter months so that they can be ready to start in the spring.
Spring is When Things Start Happening in the Hive
The number of bees in the hive will have declined rapidly at the start of winter and the colony has to survive on its stores of honey. The behavior of the bees is driven by the temperature, so a mild winter could cause problems as more young bees are hatched before there is enough food to forage for. Conversely, a long harsh winter can also cause problems.
However, in the northern hemisphere, the period between October and March is generally regarded as the off-season, and a time when beekeepers do not inspect their hives. At some stage in March, and on a mild day, the beekeeper will want to inspect the hive to check how the bees are and if any intervention is required.
One of the things that you need to look for is a brood so you can be sure the queen is laying. You are also checking how much food there is in the hive. It is recommended that you feed the hive with sugar syrup if you are concerned.
There are two reasons for this:
- The more food in the hive, the stronger the larvae will be
- It is hard to assess how much food will be available outside the hive, so it is better to be safe than sorry.
It takes 21 days for a worker bee to emerge from the cell after the egg is laid. Eggs hatch after three days and the cell is sealed five days after that so that the worker bee can develop. In winter, the worker bee lives for around six months. In the summer, just 36 days.
While each hive is subject to fluctuations, the queen usually stops laying eggs at the end of September and starts again in early January. By the end of March, the queen is laying thousands of eggs each day, which continues until the middle of the summer. As a result, the population of bees in a colony rises from under 10,000 to a peak of around 60,000 in the summer, before declining again sharply in September and October.
Implications for the beekeeper
When you consider the scaling up of the hive as the bees prepare to forage to gather the maximum amount of nectar to turn into honey, pollen, and other foodstuffs, it is obvious that this is going to be a busy time for the beekeeper.
At the start of spring, the beekeeper will be concerned with checking the hive has a good water supply nearby and is in good condition. You will be checking that the queen is healthy and watching to see what the bees are bringing into the hive. Pollen on the legs, for example.
By May, you will be working on managing your colonies, watching out for swarming, and potentially adding new hives to your site. You will be adding supers so that the bees can store more honey. You will be checking on the queen and marking her if you can. You will be looking at brood comb and destroying queen cells.
The yearly cycle
By the end of August, you will be ready to harvest your honey. You will be extracting the honey from the super frames and ensuring the equipment is cleaned so it can be returned to the bees. You will be doing repairs and maintenance so the bees will be in good condition through the winter months.
For experienced beekeepers, this is the start of their beekeeping year. The rationale is that the better condition your bees are in overwinter, the better start the bees will have the following spring.
The ideal situation is to have a young queen (queens live for three to four years) with plenty of bees, free from disease and with sufficient stores. The advantage of a young queen is that she is likely to lay eggs later in the year. In turn, this means that worker bees do not have to live for as long under winter conditions.
For this reason, experienced beekeepers often remove two-year-old queens in September. Depending on your confidence, you can either produce the new queens yourself or buy them. If your colonies are small, they should be united and given a new queen. This is all tricky but satisfying work.
Another consideration is how much food the bees have stored so they can winter successfully. You may need to provide some sugar syrup to support them. Finally, the hives also need to be secured against pests such as mice and woodpeckers.
Keeping a Record
One of the things that is recommended but often neglected is to keep a record of what is happening to each colony and when. A good record helps you to remember what action was taken in each hive and to schedule follow up work.
Your journal will also give you a picture of what worked and what did not work, so you can put new methods into place in subsequent years or so you can get good advice from local experts.
For example, keeping a record of how much honey was in the hives at the start of winter and how much sugar syrup was added will help you to know what is needed the following year.