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Keeping bees after the summer solstice

The first day of summer has the longest daylight period of the year, but then—the very next day—the daylight hours begin to decrease. I always feel like the first day of summer is more like the last.

Of course, that’s just day length. The warmest part of the summer—at least here in the northern hemisphere—is yet to come. But the bees know the truth, and things within the hive are about to change.

The beekeeping year in two parts

In my own beekeeping practice, it helps me to think of the year in two parts. Colony expansion occurs from the winter solstice to the summer solstice, and colony contraction occurs from the summer solstice to the winter one. Now there is not a perfect correlation, and variations occur according to local climate and weather conditions. But still, as a general guideline it works well.

I used to think it was merely a matter of photoperiod, that the bees sensed the shortening of the daylight hours and began preparing for winter. Since then, I’ve read research that claims honey bees are not particularly sensitive to photoperiod, after all it is dark inside the hive all the time. But something is giving them a heads up, and in my experience the bee colony is very different in the contraction phase than in the expansion phase.

What was easy becomes difficult

For me, beekeeping during the expansion phase is easy. The colony is growing and seems to out-compete the mites. Nectar and pollen are stashed away. The hive gains weight. Supers are added. The bees are gentle as pet bunnies. Hive pests such as beetles and moths are kept neatly in check. During the expansion phase it is easy to think beekeeping is a walk in the park.

But after the summer solstice, a gradual change occurs. Egg laying decreases, slightly at first, but enough to cause the number of mites per bee to increase. A nectar dearth often accompanies the warm weather, causing robbing and increased defensiveness. Increased defensiveness means more stings, and summer heat means your bees are more apt to visit your neighbor’s swimming pool and pet bowls. Populations of predators such as yellowjackets, which start small in the spring, are building fast and may start bugging your bees. Although you can’t quite put your finger on it, your colonies are more troublesome than they were before. If it’s not one problem, it’s another.

Predicting behavior

Becoming aware of the subtle changes within your hive makes beekeeping more predictable and less bewildering. Awareness also helps you devise a management plan. It helps you decide what needs to be done. And when. And why.

For example, because I live in an area with a distinct dry season (little or no rain during July, August, and September), I usually remove my honey supers at the end of June. Then I turn my attention to mite monitoring and preparations for winter. I buy sugar on sale, repair moisture quilts, make candy boards, paint what needs it, and assess what I will do differently next year. I add robbing screens to weaker hives, make sure the bees have a good water source, and make a plan for mite management.

Experienced beekeepers are well aware of colony expansion and contraction, but it takes a while for a new beekeeper to understand the rhythm: the ebb and flow of bees, floral resources, and colony pests. If you are completely new to this and a little bit lost, try thinking of the year as a two-act play, and remember we are now beginning the second act.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

Comments

Paul
Reply

Rusty,

What do you do with the honey in your honey boxes if you are taking them off in June? I have two medium 10-frame honey boxes full of honey but I didn’t want to harvest the honey because I don’t yet know what I will need to keep for the bees for winter. When you take the honey boxes of will there be an excess of bees that will now be crowding into the lower brood boxes?

Rusty
Reply

Paul,

Okay, several questions here. First, I handle my honey frames the same way no matter when I take them off. That is, I wrap each frame in plastic wrap and freeze it for a day or two. Then I take them out of the freezer, leave the wrap in place, and allow them to thaw. Now that I’ve killed any insect eggs (wax moths or hive beetles) I have as long as I need to process the honey.

If you intend to extract your honey, you can now wait until fall to see how much you want to extract and how much you want to feed back to the colonies. I always keep some extra frames too, just in case.

Yes, the bees may be crowded when you first remove the supers, but the populations are dropping. If you want, you can always put an empty super back on the hive to give them space to store more honey as well as space to spread out. I look at each colony separately to decide what it needs.

richard anstis
Reply

Cheer up, Rusty. Summer’s here!

I know that because here in the UK….it’s raining.

Barney
Reply

Hi Rusty,

I am from South Africa, and as you know we are now in the middle of winter. Our winters are not that bad for the bees are still foraging.

I am a “Bee rescuer”, catching bees and selling them to bee farmers. Yesterday I got a call from a construction company to come and remove some bees. I don’t want to do it in winter because the bees can die in transit. I could not remove the bees because they are nesting in between a double boundary wall with lots of escape routes.

Rusty, have you got any suggestions for me to overcome this problem in future rescue attempts? If there was only one entrance, I could fasten a pipe with a funnel at the end and connect it through a hole into a brood box. I am always open for suggestions because I love the bees.

Regards,
Barney

Rusty
Reply

Barney,

I do not do much bee rescue, so I’m not full of ideas. Can you possibly close off all the entrances except for one? That would be the only thing I can think of.

Hillary
Reply

Thank you Rusty this is very helpful. I am heading into my second year of bee keeping and I likely would have assumed that these subtle changes indicated that I was doing something wrong.

Erik Brown
Reply

What a great post. The bees are buzzing and here I am thinking things are going well. Now you go and throw a wrench in my lovely little bee year. This is my second year and I quite like the perspective this puts on our hives. A bit of a bummer to think in winter preparation terms just as the weather heats up, though seems like a useful tactic.

Thank you as always!

Rusty
Reply

Thanks, Erik.

Sherry V
Reply

Could you comment more on why you remove the supers in June. I’m in Seattle and if memory serves you’re very near my location.

Rusty
Reply

Sherry,

Generally, our dry season begins around July 4 and runs through mid-September or later. Your bee populations are still very high in July, but once the dry season hits, the dearth begins and there is very little forage to be found. This may be less so in urban areas, but out in the countryside things pretty much dry up. Instead of eating up their winter stores, the bees go out looking for other sources of food. Stronger hives will find weaker ones and begin robbing them of honey stores. I’ve seen colonies with two or three filled honey supers go empty in just a week or two. Many times beekeepers have said they had huge crops of honey, but the next time they looked it was gone.

Since the bees won’t be adding any honey once the dry season starts, and since they might actually lose what they have, I proactively remove supers within a week or so after the rain stops, which is usually around the end of June or first week of July. This is my personal management decision. I’m not recommending it, I’m simply stating how I do it.

Nancy
Reply

Very beautifully expressed, Rusty!

However photoperiod may affect the bees themselves, it’s good to understand how it affects humans.

Natural light, through the retina, stimulates the pituitary gland to produce serotonin – “wake-up” hormone. Although today may be only a few seconds shorter than yesterday, the decrease in serotonin and accumulation of melatonin (“sleep” hormone) begins. Because of the flattening of the Earth’s curvature north of the Equator, the change is slightly felt until August, and then summer blahs really set in.

It helps me to remember that this is physiological: that my bees deserve a thorough inspection, though I may not feel up to it, or that the work table piled with dismembered frames would be a good task for a blah day. Just like it helps to remind ourselves why humidity makes bees cranky, rather than rushing to re-queen. One of our club’s students had that “OH!” moment when it was explained that nectar condenses into honey more slowly when humidity is high, making more work for the fanners. (He works in HVAC! I said, “So do the bees!”)

A very timely article – thanks!

Nancy
Shady Grove Farm
Corinth, Kentucky

Rusty
Reply

Nancy,

Your comment about the late summer blues reminds me of posts I have written about “mountain melancholy.” I believe it is basically the same thing, and is caused by physiological response to shortening day length.

Renaldo
Reply

I find it odd that people would think an insect who uses the location of the sun relative to her home in order to find her way out, to food and back, would not be able to recognize and adapt to lengthening and shortening of day light. It’s what they do. (I think)

Rusty
Reply

Renaldo,

You are absolutely right and I agree. It must be the day length they respond to. It just makes sense.

Moya
Reply

Hi Rusty, first of all thank you for this wonderful website which I find very resourceful and have read many of your posts. I am new to beekeeping (6 months) and living in Bahrain, beekeeping is not something people usual do here. To keep the comment brief my bees are now going into the second phase and hope they manage to survive our hot and humid summer temperatures. I have left plenty of water out and hopefully taken care of shade and ventilation, but bees bearding at night. I also have local dwarf honey bee nests in my trees which are drinking from the same water source as my own hives and now find a few of them trying to enter the hives. Would these dwarf bees pose a great threat to my hives… should I be concerned? If I place robbing screens then the bees will not be able to beard at night on the landing board. Would appreciate your thoughts. Thank you.

Rusty
Reply

Moya,

I don’t know anything about the interaction between European honey bees and dwarf honey bees. I think I would wait and see if it gets worse. If it’s just a few investigating the hive, I think I would do nothing. If it gets worse, then add the robbing screen.

Barney
Reply

Rusty,

I was also thinking of closing of all the entrances except for one, but there is one problem it will take about a month to lure the bees out to the brood box. The contractors want it done in one day. Thanks for your feedback Rusty. I enjoy reading your articles.

Regards,
Barney.

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