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Back to basics: The seasons of beekeeping

Beekeeping is a fascinating hobby, or for some of us lucky enough even a job, but for those that haven’t had any beekeeping experience it can seem like a mystical and confusing world. I noticed during my first few posts that I just dove right with the beekeeping but perhaps didn’t go over the basics first. This fairly long post (Sorry I got carried away!) is going to go over the year of a beekeeper, so you can understand a little more about how bees and beekeepers work together throughout the year.

April – The start of our beekeeping year

It may seem odd starting a year off in April but for a beekeeper that’s when things really start to get interesting. April is a time when the bees become more active and the longer spring days have prompted the queen to increase the amount of eggs she lays. Did you know, at the height of summer the queen can lay 1,500 eggs per day! As well as the growing bee population, spring flowers are starting to come out and the bees start producing the first honey of the year.

A small section of comb with laid in by the queen

May – The joy of Oilseed Rape

May, the temperatures are warming up now and the bees are out flying every day. Oilseed Rape, the yellow flower seen all over the countryside is in full flower and it provides a massive boost and first crop for our bees. We move our bees as close to the Rape Seed as possible to cut down on how far they have to fly, the bees do the rest of the work! It’s not uncommon for a hive to produce upwards of 20kgs of honey in just a few weeks!

Oilseed Rape honey is deliciously sweet and fairly mild tasting, but it has one quality that can stop even the best beekeeper in their tracks. We all know honey granulates over time, it’s fair to say we have all found that jar of honey at the back of the cupboard we had forgotten about, now rock solid. Well Oil Seed Rape honey does this in a matter of weeks or even days if it isn’t extracted from the comb quick enough.

To get around this we produce soft set honey, a smooth creamy texture created by grinding down the sugar crystals until they’re no longer bitty and unpleasant to eat. It’s one of our most popular types of honey and you can find it here – Creamed Honey

The sea of yellow Oilseed Rape

June – Mind the gap!

The June gap – sounds funny I know but it can be a really serious time for bees and their keepers . Towards the end of May the spring flowers, like the Oil Seed Rape and many of our native flowering trees have gone over and no longer produce pollen or nectar. The problem is many of our summer flowers aren’t yet ready which means our bees can go hungry.

The hive is nearing it’s peak capacity over summer, around 60,000 bees but the food sources become scarce and as many beekeepers extract spring honey in May/June we need to be extra attentive making sure our hives have enough food or supplement in their food.

Thirsty work! A worker collecting water

July – Summer is finally here.. hopefully!

This is the month the bees really expand, the queen is laying roughly 2,000 eggs per day and the workers are busy collecting pollen and nectar from an abundance of flowers.

The hive, reaching maximum capacity can also cause the bees to swarm, which is a natural way of a hive reproducing. In a swarm the old queen leaves with about one third of the workers to make a new hive, while the old hive produces a new queen to take over. As a beekeeper we want to avoid swarms as much as possible, not only can they be a nuisance to members of the public they also greatly reduce the workforce of the hive, and the stores of honey the colony has amassed throughout the year.

This colourful picture always reminds me of summer!

August – Too dry?

While most years are fine and the bees continue well with the queen only laying slightly less than the peak of July, 2018 was slightly different. The long hot dry spell caused many flowers to stop producing nectar which in turn had a strain on the bees. With such a large population and limited access to forage bees in some areas started consuming more honey than they could produce.

Despite the dry spell, the summer of 2018 was record breaking for many beekeepers, as the hot but damp start to the year gave our bees the an abundance of flowers producing nectar and pollen.

Grass around two of our hives dried up, it got much drier than this too!

September – The Start Of Winter…Already!

September is the first month in which we as beekeepers start to really think about preparing for winter, the main honey flow (plants in flower) is over and the bees population has started to reduce. Our first job is to remove the supers of honey (Not sure what a super is? Check out our post on parts of the beehive – Here) This is our main crop of honey and may be as much as 50kg per hive!

Varroa, so if you have been reading our blog i’m sure you will have heard me mention Varroa Mites, they are a small parasitic mite that live on bees and can cause the spread of disease and eventually the colony death. In September we treat our bees with a sort of medicine that kills the exposed mites without harming the bees, by doing this we know that our bees are as healthy as possible ready winter.

Varroa Mites seen on the bee to the right.
Photo Credit: beeaware.org.au

October – Time For Food

While when we take the honey crop we do leave plenty for the bees over the winter some of the bigger hives go through their stores very quickly, while the weather is still relatively mild feed our bees with a concentrated sugar solution which bulks the hive up for the rest of the winter.

We also add mouse guards, a perforated metal sheet that stops mice from entering the hive to seek food and shelter but allows the bees to come and go freely.

Feeders on the top of a hive.
Photo Credit: Blue Line Honey

November – The Clustering Begins

As the night and now days become colder the bees begin to cluster, many people believe honey bees hibernate which isn’t true. In fact honey bees huddle together to keep warm, the lack of brood allows the bees to keep the hive at a slightly lower temperature than the rest of the year as it isn’t acting as an incubator.

Thermal Image of bees in cluster! Photo Credit: Honey Bee Suite

December – The Dark Days Of Winter

With the days now as short as they are going to be the queen has almost entirely stopped laying eggs. The bees in cluster are slowly moving over the comb in a circular pattern consuming their stores as they go. There isn’t much a beekeeper can do now besides getting ready for next year!

Our Bees During Winter

January – Time For A Quick Peak!

One of the first jobs of the new year is treating our bees for Varroa mite, again! In January we can use a naturally occurring chemical, Oxilic acid to kill mites. The acid is put into a mild solution and gently trickled over the bees. It doesn’t hurt the bees but the exposed mites are killed. This means our bees should be going into spring as healthy as possible!

The other great thing about this is that it gives you a quick chance to take a look at your bees, but we have to be quick and can’t remove the frames as the bees will have to work hard to get the hive back up to temperature.

Bees in cluster but looking very strong!

February – Are they flying?

The days are now getting longer and spring is in the air (hopefully!) on warm days the hives are busy with activity with bees venturing out for the first time in months, there are some flowers producing pollen, particularly Snowdrops, Hellebores and Crocus.

The queen is now laying much more, they will be flying in about a months time. With greater numbers of bees comes a greater demand for food, there still isn’t much in the way of nectar producing flowers but a hive will go through around 10kg of honey this month.

Bees enjoying the Crocus Pollen

March – Not Out Of The Woods Yet!

Spring is nearly here and depending on the weather we may be starting to check our bees a bit more often. It can be easy to feel like the hard work is done and they’ve made it through winter but in fact March is probably the riskiest time for bees.

The bees have grown in number to get ready for the spring flowers but they haven’t arrived yet. If beekeepers aren’t carefully monitoring the amount of a food a hive has it can be very easy for them to run out and die out before the spring flowers arrive! We check them based on weight and add sugar syrup or bakers fondant is the weather is still cold.

Pollen being collected by this worker bee

Well Done, You Made It Through A Year Of Beekeeping!

Thank you for reading our post, I know this weeks was a bit longer than usual but if you’re really interested in bees then this gives you a good overview of what our bees and us will be up to throughout the year.

Update from our bees: We have had a few sunny days recently and the bees have been taking full advantage of this, all of the hives are alive and by the activity at the entrances all look very strong too! Of course there is still a long way to go before Spring properly arrives!

Again thank you for taking the time to ready our blog!

Matthew Ingram


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2 thoughts on “Back to basics: The seasons of beekeeping

  1. Thank you Matthew, you write very well and interestingly and I have enjoyed all your blogs.
    Now I am looking forward to seeing some honey in the summer!

    1. Ann,
      Thank you for your kind message. I’m Looking forward to seeing the honey too!!

      Matthew

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