A Keeper’s Year — June

by Serge Labesque

Hive dynamics keep stores

and brood together

Inside a hive, the brood nest or the cluster must remain within very close proximity to the colony’s food and energy reserves. But the contents of the combs are not fixed or unalterable. Since the size and overall location of the brood nest, as well as the amount, type and arrangement of the colony’s supplies change constantly, their moves have to be well choreographed.

Normally, the bees organize the contents of their nest without any beekeeper intervention. They may accumulate, consume, or relocate stores within the hive. And most of the eggs that are laid ultimately develop into bees that emerge from the comb. In turn, the cells that have been emptied or vacated may be cleaned and prepared to receive eggs or stores again, but not necessarily the same thing they previously held.

When pollen or nectar is deposited in a cell before the queen lays an egg in it, the stores retain or gain comb over the brood. This is frequently the case during a honey flow or when the bees re-organize their brood chamber at the end of summer and during the fall. Conversely, when a queen places an egg in a cell, the brood nest remains set in place at that location or makes an incremental move towards the stores. We may picture this in-hive activity as a tug-o-war between brood and stores. It results in the gradual relocation of the brood nest over time, mainly up and down the comb, and to a lesser extent, from comb to comb.

Occasionally, inclement weather during periods of intense brood rearing results in wide bands of empty cells around the brood, the stores the cells contained having been consumed. In these conditions, which happen most often during cold and wet springs, the foragers cannot compensate for the large amounts of stores that are being devoured. Strong colonies led by prolific queens can tackle this situation by rapidly expanding their nests higher up in the hives. If this move is not prevented from happening, the colonies are not constrained and their vigor is not affected. It can be anticipated that the upper parts of the brood nests will be filled by incoming nectar as soon as the adult bees emerge from the comb and good weather conditions return. The brood nests will then be gradually relocated lower in the hives.

When the honey flows are generous, or when the bees relocate uncapped honey, which they do during their preparations of the hives for winter, the brood nests are forced to retreat into the lower parts of the brood chambers. When, on the contrary, meager honey flows or dearth arrive, a gradual move upward of the brood nests in the hives can be observed.

Beekeepers, however, interfere more frequently than the weather with these natural processes, sometimes with dire consequences. This can be the case, for example, when queen excluders are used. These devices can isolate brood nests from the stores they need. Similar stressful conditions may be created when frames or supers are added without considering the impact of their placement.

Most often, there is a clear demarcation between brood and stores at the edge of the brood nests. However, a seemingly random mix of brood and stores may at times occur within the brood area. Honeybound conditions of the brood nests are one example of this. In the spring, when the brood chamber of a hive becomes honeybound, the queen is forced to reduce her egg-laying rate. Soon after, she will be ready to fly out with a swarm. Usually, bees also cram their brood nests by including stores in the brood combs during the preparation of the hive for winter. One of the multiple benefits of this is that the brood that will become the winter bees a few weeks later will be well nourished. Another is that the heater bees that keep the developing young warm will find sources of energy where they are needed. In addition, this condition leads the queens to gradually slowdown.

The location of the hives, the weather and the honey flows have a strong influence on the hives. Nonetheless, it is the bees that manage the contents of the combs. They place their stores and the brood methodically, not just to maintain good nutrition of their developing young, but also to initiate life-changing colony events such as swarming, or to prepare for winter and other challenging times. This bee behavior is vitally important to the colonies. It deserves our attention… and respect.

June in the apiaries

The longest days of the year usher in substantially different weather conditions and the next phase in the life of the colonies. Now, the season of colony reproduction is essentially over. Swarms are becoming scarce. Not surprisingly, beekeepers shift their attention from hive divisions to the honey supers.

At the end of the spring honeyflow, which is marked in this area of California by the California buckeye and blackberry blooms, a sudden period of dearth seems to catch the bees off-guard. Unable to find much nectar, many foragers resort to robbing in order to gather food for their colonies. Young and weak colonies can be at risk, especially in places where the density of hives has become high. The colonies eliminate large numbers of drones and become defensive.

Although the brood nests of the established and mature colonies have reached their maximum size for the year, the young colonies are still building up. Led by young queens that will have to be evaluated in early summer, they have to begin to prepare their nests for next winter.

Hive inspections are often limited to watching the bee activity in front of the hives, examining the monitoring trays and occasional peeks into the honey supers. The brood chambers are accessed less frequently, as colony health is usually good at this time of year. But this cannot to be taken for granted. So, open-hive inspections need to be performed anytime there are signs suggesting that there might be a colony health issue. These manipulations are timed to avoid the heat of the day in order to reduce the risk of triggering robbing or defensive behavior. As the grass has dried, it is necessary to be particularly careful with the smokers, too, as they must be kept at the ready during these hive inspections.

If practical, it is good to provide some shade to the hives during the afternoon. This helps to reduce their need for water. Regardless, sources of water must be kept available to the bees without any interruption. Any surplus spring honey that has become ripe and sufficiently dehydrated, may be harvested. However, it is important to make sure we leave enough honey in the hives for the bees. This is in anticipation of the summer dearth, which can be pronounced in locations that depend on natural vegetation. I prefer harvesting a few frames of honey on multiple occasions instead of entire supers at once. This reduces the risk of robbing, does not appear to agitate the bees, and facilitates the entire process. Wet frames are returned to the hives in the evening, again to reduce the risk of robbing.

Nectar-storage space is added more modestly now than earlier in the spring. This is not only because the early-summer honey flow is usually modest, but also to help preserve or establish a crown of honey in the upper part of the brood chambers. This part of hive space management is particularly important with Double-Deep Brood Chamber (DD) hives, because the colonies and their winter stores will have to be well established in the brood chambers by the end of summer or early fall. If the upper parts of the hives were kept excessively open, the brood nests would tend to move up in the hives, since there is less nectar available to the bees. For the same reason, comb-building is slowing down. Therefore, it is beneficial not to direct this task to the honey supers when new comb may be needed in the brood chambers. Yes, it is still springtime and I am already planning for fall and winter. This is because it will take all summer long for the colonies to prepare, especially if we divert too much of their effort and energy to the honey supers.

The color and fragrance of the wax that is collected during the spring honey harvest are just delightful. At this time of year, this product from the bees may be easily processed in solar wax melters.

The weeks around the summer solstice may provide a last chance to raise a few queens under favorable conditions. Originating from the very best of our hives, these young queens will be kept at the ready to requeen colonies that do not perform well, or those that do not control mite population satisfactorily.

Do not miss going to the apiaries in the warm evenings and enjoying the sweet fragrance that emanates from the softly humming hives.

In summary, this month:
  • Inspect hives when the foragers are out in large numbers, avoiding the heat of the day.
  • Follow-up on the development of young colonies.
  • Begin to evaluate the quality of the young queens. Replace failing or undesirable queens.
  • Keep an eye on the health of the colonies.
  • Combine or requeen inherently weak colonies or those that are not developing properly.
  • Perform hive divisions and raise queens when conditions are favorable.
  • Maintain adequate air circulation through the hives.
  • Be aware of situations and manipulations that can trigger robbing.
  • Make sure the components of the hives fit tightly to prevent secondary entrances that might allow robber bees to enter.
  • Ensure that sources of water are continuously available to the bees.
  • Provide filtered afternoon shade, if at all possible.
  • Adjust the size of the hive entrances to match the forager activity and to reduce the risk of robbing.
  • Monitor swarm traps.
  • Keep some equipment at the ready to catch the occasional swarm.
  • Manage honey supers (Add space, as necessary.)
  • Harvest surplus spring honey, making sure to leave enough honey in the hives.
  • Discard old and misshapen combs.
  • Render wax.
  • Routinely clean and scorch tools and equipment.

Serge Labesque © 2019