The art of beekeeping is nothing if not a seasonal activity. The chores that will be required of beekeepers are so specific to the time of year, there’s no escaping the beautiful rhythm of the Earth making its way around the sun. For people like myself, this rhythm, this predictability, is what makes beekeeping such a soothing an activity. As each new season rolls around, you know what’s expected of you and you can enjoy riding each wave with your 60,000 sweet, buzzing friends.
The longer days of spring ignite egg-laying in the colony’s queen and kick off brood-rearing. As the days warm up and flowers begin blooming, a colony’s size can surge from a few thousand bees to tens of thousands in just a few weeks’ time.
Early spring, however, is a challenging time for beekeepers in areas where the weather plays coy. Bees that die of starvation in winter usually do so at the very beginning of spring, so be sure to pay close attention to their honey stores and feed on warmer days if necessary (when temperatures are over 55 degrees F).
Once spring is truly under way (no more April teasing), beekeepers should watch for signs of swarming. Strong colonies might require splitting, making two or more colonies from one, and other swarming prevention techniques. If your bees have survived but you want to replace an old queen, or they lost one in the winter, spring is the time to re-queen for the year.
In some areas of the country, beekeepers might want to pull spring honey supers if they want to get a particular varietal of honey. Certain early spring blooms can make lovely (and coveted) special honeys, such as apple and peach blossom.
Summer is the season to build up strength. Weather is typically reliably warm, and there is an abundance of blooms. With this floral smorgasbord, honeybees need adequate space in the hive to keep from swarming. Their tendency—and their main goal—this season is to build up stores for winter. Come June, they are already concerned with the cold of January, so beekeepers should give them the chance to bring in and store loads of honey and pollen: That means reducing inspections to only those that are necessary (so as to not disturb them more than necessary), and provide them with supers (hive boxes) to store honey. During exceptional nectar flows, the bees may be able to fill up surplus honey supers, giving you a chance to harvest your own honey at the end of the summer.
The job of beekeepers in the fall is to prepare the hive for winter. The bees have done the work of building stores, so you do your part to protect them from the cold and damp conditions ahead. Remove the last of the honey supers and start to clean up in preparation for the winter. Remember that the winter cluster is about the size of a football, so you wouldn’t want to leave the bees with a large hive, several boxes tall, with honey on one end and the brood nest (where they cluster) on the other, so in your fall inspections, condense the brood nest. Then move honey and pollen frames closer to the nest, and remove any extra summer equipment. Check for mice and other pests, treat with medical varroa treatments (if you choose to), and install the metal mouse guard at the entrance of the hive. Some beekeepers in harsher northern climates remove the screened bottom board from the summer and replace it with a solid one.
I also like to tip my hives forward a bit to allow any condensation that builds to drain out during the winter. Wet bees in winter are dead bees, make no mistake. I also like to strap my hives tightly, holding all of the supers together in case it tips or falls, because we get winter bear activity and heavy winds where we live.
Winter is a restful season for beekeepers. Your tasks are to brush up on your reading, take inventory of your supplies, reorder materials and bees if necessary, and watch for signs of spring. Unfortunately, winter is not that restful for the bees, though. While they do go into a bit of a hibernation state, they’re constantly vibrating in their cluster to keep warm and keep the brood nest hot enough to raise babies. At the center of the nest is their most valuable asset: the queen. She limits her laying significantly in winter, but will continue laying to keep the population’s numbers in a place where the colony can take off and grow again in spring.
Remember, seasonal beekeeping tasks vary depending on your exact geographical location, as well as the microclimate of your own apiary. You’ll have to use your own judgement when it comes down to it; use your intuition and learn to “read” the bees. When in doubt, consult with your mentor, your local beekeeping club or your county extension office. And then enjoy the swing into each new season!