Northern beekeepers: beware the Ides of March
As a beekeeper, I have a phobia about the six-week period from mid-March until the end of April. If I were to tally all the colonies I’ve ever lost, I’m sure the majority succumbed in that early-spring window. Considering that the first day of spring falls around March 20, it seems like a strange time to lose a colony. After all, they made it to spring. But that is the mindset that can get folks like me in trouble. Since it’s spring, I don’t have to worry. Right?
Wrong. Two things, especially in northern areas, can combine to cause trouble. Thing number one is the expanding population of your colony, and thing number two is quirky weather patterns. The third of two things is the broody nature of worker bees, which makes everything worse. Let me explain.
Contraction and expansion
Beginning in autumn, after the workers have evicted the drones, the colony holes up for winter. Depending on your area, brood rearing is minimal or may stop altogether. Even though you have a colony of long-lived winter bees, some die, and the colony slowly decreases in size. The bees require food to produce heat and keep the colony warm. The amount of food they require fluctuates with the temperature, but it stays relatively constant over the months.
But soon after the winter solstice, the queen increases her egg laying. The brood nest expands, which requires more food, and the adult population increases, which requires even more. Let’s say, just for the sake of argument, that your colony overwintered with 10,000 bees. If, come March, you reach 20,000 bees, the colony will require twice as much food per day. If the number is 30,000 bees, the colony will need three times as much.
Things we can’t see get ignored
We beekeepers can get into trouble because, from the outside, the colony doesn’t look much different than it did all winter. Although I hate to admit it, this is the mistake I’ve made.
For example, after one particularly poor nectar year, all my colonies were short on stores even though I harvested nothing. During fall and winter, I checked the feeders and candy boards once every ten days. I calendared the schedule and every ten days, just like clockwork, I took a quick peak under the hood. Anyone running low received extra sugar cakes. All my colonies were thriving by April.
But because I forget what was going on inside, I continued the ten-day check until I discovered my largest colony completely dead. They starved to death in a cold snap and there wasn’t a thimbleful of food to be found. I freaked. Three deeps of dead bees is not a pretty sight, and it still makes me angry to think about it. How could I be so dense? The number of bees had probably quadrupled while I was still feeding at the same rate.
Hens in the beehive
The only consolation I have is that I’ve heard this same story from other beekeepers. We get busy, we operate on a schedule, we travel, we get caught up with day-to-day details, and we stop thinking. Thinking about this for two minutes would have prevented the loss.
If you get a cold snap, which can happen easily in spring, things can get bad even faster. Honey bees are not very good at leaving the cluster to find food, which is why so many colonies starve when food is only a frame or two away. But the situation is even worse when brood is present. Just like a coop full of broody hens, worker bees don’t like to leave the young’uns to go in search of sustenance. Apparently, systems are in place for this contingency: some bees retrieve food and bring it back to the nest. But if the nest is large and the temperature is low, the colony may not survive.
About the Ides of March
My husband is a piece of work, one of those guys who sees the bright side of everything. If there is something to celebrate—and his imagination knows no bounds—he will discover it and we will celebrate. So, for as long as I can remember, I’ve been caught up in celebrating the Ides of March just because we can. (In case you forgot, the Ides of March is the 15th, one day after pi day, which we also celebrate.)
Anyway, since I’m not allowed to forget the Ides of March, I’ve tried to associate it with more frequent hive checks. Because it sounds kind of ominous—Beware!—the date reminds me that it’s time to pay closer attention. Of course, the magic date for you will vary with your latitude, elevation, and local climate. But if you can, build a memory cue into your life, one that will remind you of things you can’t easily see.
Now, go take care of your bees. After that, you too can celebrate.
Honey Bee Suite