A Year In The Life Of A Beekeeper

University Place: A Look At The Seasonal Cycle Of Raising Backyard Honey Bees
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Hajee (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Honey bee colonies will grow in size through spring and summer.

A month-and-a-half before the first dandelion heads crest above recently thawed soil, honey bees that survive the winter are already busy preparing to collect spring's first grains of pollen. Although they are most active and numerous during the summer months, Western (or European) honey bees (Apis mellifera) and wild bee species that are native to North America are in a state of transition throughout the course of the year.

For people who raise honey bees, its beneficial outcomes are not limited to the sweet, golden honey their hives produce, according to Richard Schneider, owner of Columbus-based Capital Bee Supply. He discussed a variety of other benefits of beekeeping, including garden pollination and a building a cache of beeswax, in a Feb. 13, 2016 presentation at the Wisconsin Garden Expo, recorded for Wisconsin Public Television's University Place.

"A lot of people are interested in trying to improve the pollination of their fruits and vegetables in their gardens. Honeybees, as a managed pollinator, are terrific at that," Schneider said.

The beekeeper's year picks up when temperatures hit 40-50° F and season's earliest flowers start to bloom. As a keeper begins performing repairs to bee boxes and inspecting for signs of disease or pests like the Varroa destructor mite, the hive's queen should be ramping up egg production, swelling the population to around 20,000 bees.

A hive's growth will continue through spring and into summer. While many of the new bees are workers — females that will venture out to collect nectar, pollen and water — the queen may also begin producing drones (that is, males) and new queens, potentially leading to a swarm that sees part of the hive split off to form a new colony. Beekeepers should monitor this process closely and capture a new queen once she emerges to prevent any new hive from settling in an unfavorable location.

Summer is the peak time for a hive, with a population of 60,000 to 80,000 bees. Resource collection begins to slow as the growing season fades to a close in early fall, and the hive’s population drops to around 40,000. However, autumn is a busy time for beekeepers as they harvest, process and package surplus honey, making sure to leave 50 to 100 pounds in place to sustain the hive through winter. They may also combine weak hives to ensure the colony is strong enough to survive the colder months.

Healthy honey bee hive populations reach into the tens of thousands.
Ryan Wick (CC BY 2.0)

Winter can be a challenging time for the honey bees and their keepers, and for native species that face additional difficulties like a reduction in food sources and habitat. As temperatures reach the lowest points of the year, a hive’s population dips as well, down to around 10,000 bees. The remaining bees forms a cluster around the queen, vibrating their flight muscles to generate warm temperatures of up to 90° F While this behavior keeps some reserve honey thawed and allows the hive to begin producing new bees, the heat can generate condensation on the top of a bee box, which can prove fatal to a hive it if is allowed to fall on the bees.

Some hives may require additional nutrition in the form of granulated sugar, candy or syrup, as well as additional protection from the wind and weather. For beekeepers, adaptability and research on challenges like colony collapse disorder can help in staying ahead of changing conditions, shifting needs of the hive and the broader environmental influences on bee populations.

"I tell people that I'm probably in the twelfth year of my five-year plan to know everything about honeybees," Schneider said. "It's a constant learning curve to it. Just when you think you have it figured out, something changes."

Key facts

  • Preferred plans of honey bees in Wisconsin plants include clover(Dalea L.), buckwheat (Eriogonum Michx.), mint (Mentha L.), blooming alfalfa (Medicago L.) and canola (Brassica napus L.).

  • Honey bee colonies produce substances other than honey that have different uses within the hive. Royal jelly is produced by nurse bees and used to feed developing larvae. Propolis is a sticky substance made from tree sap and resin; worker bees use it as a building material to seal up cracks in the hive or stick things together. Propolis also has antiseptic and antibiotic properties that help prevent contamination from the bacteria carried by slain invaders like mice that have been encased in the substance. Honeycomb is the hard wax that forms the structure of the hive — it is often harvested to make beeswax products like candles and soap.

  • Some commercial beekeepers may store hives in wintering buildings to protect their colonies from harsh weather conditions. Others engage in migratory beekeeping, moving their hives to warmer climates in the winter.

  • Honey bees that mature in late fall have longer lifespans than their spring counterparts, living up to five months.

  • Packages of bees are typically available for purchase in spring from warmer states with actively blooming crops like California, Florida or Texas. A package generally includes a queen and 4,000-7,000 additional bees, and can be used to establish a new colony or expand an existing hive. Once a queen is installed in a hive, her companion bees will take up residence because they have become bonded to her as a result of their proximity during transit.

  • Varroa destructor mites first appeared in the United States in the 1980s. These mites consume the blood of adult and developing bees, resulting in weakened worker bees and drones with shorter lifespans and deformities. Beekeepers can test for mites and measure their load by covering a sample of bees with powdered sugar in a jar with a screen lid. The sugar and the bees’ grooming dislodges the mites and prevents them from reattaching. Any mites present can then be counted in the powdered sugar after it is removed from the jar.

Key quotes

  • On beekeeping as a family: "One of the things that's nice about beekeeping is that it can be multi-generational. We have two daughters ... both of them started working with us with bees when they were three or four years old. We try to get them involved in many different aspects of it, but they don't necessarily have to work with bees if they don't want to. There's lots of other things they can do in terms of painting and trapping."

  • On beekeepers' heightened awareness of seasons: "When you start keeping bees, you become even more in tune sometimes to what's going on in the phenology and the flowering year. The bees have to be about 45 days ahead of when they think flowers are going to start blooming, because it takes 45 days from the time that an egg is laid to the time that you have a foraging bee that's able to fly out into the environment and actually collect nectar and pollen."

  • On the varied uses of beeswax: "Beeswax has been something historically used for lots of different purposes: candle products, lighting, toilet bowl rings, coatings on candies, waterproofing agents — for lots of stuff throughout history."

  • On differences of opinion among beekeepers: "There's kind of a favorite line that goes around in the beekeeping community: ask 10 beekeepers, get 15 opinions on what you should have done or didn't do or didn't do right or should do tomorrow. But that's just the nature of it, there's lots of ways to keep bees."

  • On beekeepers' vocabulary: "There's two words that beekeepers should get away from using; that's always and never, because just when you say those two things something changes on you."
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