January and February
The bees keep their winter cluster intact, except on the occasional sunny days in the 50’s and above when the bees can fly. The queen begins to lay eggs, and brood rearing begins in the largest, healthiest hives.
This is the time for cleaning unused frames and hives and constructing, painting, and repairing equipment. Most of the new catalogs from the beekeeping supply companies will be available in January. Your goal should be to have your equipment ready by March. Do not install the foundation yet — that should be done just before the frames go into the hives. Foundation will dry, crack, and be rejected by the bees if it is exposed to the air for a long time prior to going into the hive.
If you are buying nucs, queens or package bees this year, order by January. By February or March, many of the producers will be booked solid and not able to promise your shipment of bees before May.
On a warm day, check food supply by quickly opening the hive and checking to see where the bees are. Are they at the top of the frames? Another way to check is to GENTLY lift the back of the hive and judging the weight. If feeding is necessary, then begin feeding inside the hive.
FOOD SUPPLY! March is a critical time for the bees. And it’s usually the month that most hives are lost. The bees will thrive or suffer depending on weather and your management. Tracheal mites, starvation, and nosema disease are the main enemies at this time. The bees are starting to rear more brood, but it’s an erratic process. The bees have consumed a lot of honey through the winter but have not had a chance to make new honey, so stores are low.
If the bees are low on honey, feed with sugar syrup (1:1). This will boost brood rearing. What are the temps like? Bees do not fly below 45 degrees. The best time is when the weather is predicted to be warm (highs of 60 degrees or above) for several days. The bees will not break their cluster to take the syrup during cold weather. Are bees bringing pollen back to the hive? This indicates that there is young brood being fed.
By April, the bees have made it over the hump. The problems they faced in March have not completely disappeared, but a healthy hive needs only a little nurturing now. Brood rearing should really increase through this month. If it does not, your hive has serious problems. As the warmer weather comes, look for many bees returning with pollen loads. Plants are starting to produce nectar and pollen. The nectar flow is starting.
Check food supply. In particular, keep an eye on the 5-day weather forecasts. A week of cold rain could really hurt the brood rearing. Feed the bees if you see this coming and the hive does not have at least a frame or two of stored honey. Spend some time in the hive (weather permitting) and check that you have new bees in all stages of growth (eggs, larva, capped brood). If you see these signs, you have a good productive queen. Prepare for swarm season.
If you want a swarm to happen, do not allow for extra room in the hive. If you don’t want a swarm to happen, leave room for the honey flow (add supers).
In May and June you and the bees are rewarded, or disappointed, by how well you prepared for the honey flow. You may also be busy keeping up with your bees. Serious beekeepers do not take long vacations in May.
If your bees are healthy, everything happens this month. The hive is full of young bees, the weather is almost perfect, and honey plants are blooming everywhere. The queen is laying eggs day and night, often over 1000 daily. There are now enough bees to take care of all the brood.
The hive is making honey very quickly, even several pounds daily. If the bees need to make wax they will do this quickly by building onto foundation in your frames or by filling in empty spaces with burr comb. Drone production increases greatly and many drones fly out on sunny afternoons in search of the mating areas. Swarming becomes a very important factor. May is the ideal time for a colony to reproduce, and most colonies will produce “swarm cells”, or queen cells that will mature in time for swarms to issue from the hive.
Once the weather is warmer, remove the mouse guard. Feed if necessary. Check your hives weekly and add supers as needed. Be sure there is plenty of space above the brood nest for honey. Frames with new foundation should go in. A strong hive will draw out the foundation into new comb in just a few days if the weather is good. In a hive with two deep brood boxes, the bees will often move to the upper brood box, leaving the lower box relatively empty. This is an inefficient use of space in the hive and can lead to swarming. In May or June it is useful to “reverse” these brood boxes. This means removing all of the boxes, placing the second box on the bottom board where the first box had been, and placing the first box above it. This may break the brood cluster. So check the weather forecast and do this when at least two warm days are coming. The bees will need to rearrange their cluster, and less brood will be lost in the process if it is not exposed to cool weather much below 50 degrees.
This month is much like May, except the hive will have more bees. The honey and pollen flows continue. The days are long enough that the bees can fly for 14 to 16 hours a day, and they will.
There is now plenty of drone brood, which is ideal for varroa reproduction.
Inspect the hive weekly if possible. Provide extra honey supers as needed. Watch for queen cells. If you find some, consider splitting your hive.
The brood should now fill many of the frames of two hive bodies. An overcrowded brood nest can stimulate swarming. To provide space you can spread the brood frames apart, and insert one or two empty frames. It’s warm enough now that there is no danger of chilling the brood. The queen is looking for empty cells all the time, and she will quickly fill these frames with eggs. If you are going to increase the number of hives you have by making splits, May or June is the time to do it.
Here in central PA, June is also the best time of year to requeen if you want to use a chemical free method of mite control (see http://www.centrecountybees.com/2010/05/controlling-varroa-by-disrupting-brood.html). Pull queens out of the hives at the beginning of the honey flow (this usually is around the week of June 1). Your objective is to eliminate brood within the hive for a short period of time. Without bee brood, the mites have nowhere to lay their eggs. Next, be vigilant about cutting out queen cells twice within 7-13 days (if you are planning to introduce a new queen to the hive, the bees will be more likely to accept her if they are unable to raise their own queen). After about 2 weeks, introduce a new mated queen. If you are planning to introduce a queen cell into the hive, you can do so after about 1 week. Ideally your hive should not be queenless for more than 18 days. After day 18 you run the risk of laying workers
Observations and Ideas
Walk the roadsides and fields, looking for flowering plants with honey bees on them. If the bees are collecting pollen, note the color. Taste, smell and observe the color of the honey which the bees have just placed in the supers. Over the years you will learn the seasonal cycle of bee plants.
A great place to go is the “Pollinator’s Garden” at the Penn State Arboretum. It’s really is incredible to see and highly recommended.
The bees are much less active. The honey flow often ends, and the beekeeper will notice that stings are more frequent! This is because the foragers have less to do, and consequently spend more time at home guarding the hive. Swarming is still possible, but much less likely. Bees are now searching for water to cool their hive, and will fly for miles to find it if necessary. They place small drops of water in the cells and use their wings to fan the air over the cells.
Enjoy the smell of honey in your backyard. Many beekeepers harvest the honey in July. Take the frames in which the honey cells are capped. If the weather has been rainy, the bees may not have been able to remove enough moisture to ripen it yet. In this case, many of the honey cells may still be uncapped. Leave the honey frames on the hives through a hot, dry period, and check again. Water availability can be a concern. If water (a stream, pond, or other clean water) is not within a half mile, provide a source. This can be a slowly dripping faucet or large container of water with pieces of wood floating in it.
Look for varroa, especially in your strongest hives. Hives with the most bees have the most drone brood, the favorite spot for these mites.
This month is much like July. The bees are still rearing brood, but storing little honey. And they still need water. Late summer is the time for bees to try to rob honey from other hives. This is because of the dearth of nectar. If you have more than one hive, don’t open a hive for more than a few minutes. Unguarded honey leads to a “robbing frenzy”. Even if you then close the hive, the robbing bees remain in the same frame of mind. Stronger hives will do their best to fight their way into the weaker hives. Watch for fighting bees at the entrances of the hives. August is a serious month for varroa mites. The mites have been reproducing rapidly in the brood cells since spring. Their numbers can build up without any apparent signs of trouble and then suddenly destroy a hive within a few weeks.
August is the month to begin thinking about winter. A weak hive should be de-queened and united with a stronger hive.
Brood rearing begins to taper off and drone brood has disappeared. Often, a second honey flow comes in September. Goldenrod and aster bloom at this time. We often DO NOT see a good fall flow in this region. In fact, last year, due to weather (several weeks of drought followed by monsoon type rain) the flower’s nectar was washed away and the bees began eating into their stores. All across the region, hives were light and required feeding.
The last weeks of warm weather are the times to assess which hives are ready for winter. There is still time to feed syrup to those without sufficient stored honey and to unite the weakest hives with stronger hives.
Brood rearing declines dramatically to a small cluster of cells. Drones remaining in the hive are ejected by the workers. The bees begin to winterize their hive by collecting propolis, a sticky substance made from plant resins. The hive is now harder to open, and many frames are glued into position with propolis.
If you use queen excluders, they should be removed by October since they no longer serve any purpose. Also, as the weather starts to cool, it's a good time to staple mouse guards over your hive entrances.
To winterize your hive, place a deep super on top of your inner cover and underneath your hive lid. This will help to control for moisture/condensation inside the hive. Here in zone 5, it is not necessary to wrap your hive. In fact, if we get a warm sunny day in January, wrapping may do more harm than good. Bear in mind that condensation inside the hive is more of a killer than cold weather. It's also OK to leave your screened bottom board inside the hive over the winter.
The bees may take a little syrup (2 parts sugar to 1 part water) in early October, but it is usually too late to feed the bees if they have not stored enough honey to make it through the winter. Take a last look at the bees and make a note as to the size of the cluster and the amount of stored honey. This information will be useful in spring, when you may wonder about problems the bees had in making it through the winter.
November and December
The bees have changed to their wintertime mode. A large colony may have a small amount of brood in early November, but that will soon disappear. By now the queen has completely stopped laying eggs. Five or ten days in November will be warm enough for the bees to fly, but they will find nothing blooming. As the weather gets cold, the bees form a tight cluster to keep warm. This ball of bees overlaps several frames of honey. The bees gradually consume their stored honey and generate heat. The colder it gets, the tighter the bees cluster. Week by week, the ball of bees gradually moves through the hive to find more honey. When the first snowfall covers the hives, consider that the honey bee is the only insect in Pennsylvania that keeps warm all winter.
In early winter, mice may move into a hive and make a nest. This can occur even if the hive is alive and well overwinter. The bees are tightly clustered and the mouse finds a spot in the corner
away from the bees.
The year is effectively over. There is now little to be done for the bees. If you haven’t removed your queen excluder, do so on the first warm day in November. Otherwise, there is no reason to open your hives.
Attach an entrance reducer to the front of the hive. This serves two purposes: cold wind is kept out of the hive; and, mice are prevented from nesting in the hive. Entrance reducers may be purchased from beekeeping supply companies. Or, you can simply nail a strip of wood to reduce the opening of the hive. Be sure your entrance reducer is thick enough to be mouse-proof. Some have metal strips to deter mice.
Observations and ideas
Late November and December are the best times to plant trees. Black locust and tulip poplar seedlings can be planted where they will provide shade, windbreak, and nectar for the bees. These two trees are known for their rapid growth and copious nectar. As honey plants, trees are a long-term investment. They will not provide significant bloom for several years.
This is a good time to do some reading. Some fine books and videos are available from beekeeping supply companies. Books on beginning beekeeping, advanced topics such as queen rearing, and general interest are sold.