Spring has sprung! March 19th marked the official beginning of the warmer seasons, and, for beekeepers, that means we’re back in business. There’s not a whole lot of beekeeping to do during the winter months. Before we get the jump on spring beekeeping, it’s important to know what the bees are going to be doing on their own. Beekeeping works best when we help our bees follow their natural instincts. So the question this March is, what are your bees up to?
Getting ready for winter
There’s basically one thing honeybees are always doing and that is getting ready for the next winter. In March that means two things: making new bees and stocking up on resources. It’s the way these two processes interact that makes this month the most dangerous on the whole calendar. During winter, our normally rambunctious bee friends stay pretty well cooped up in their hive after it reaches a certain temperature (most breeds of honeybees have trouble flying in anything lower than the mid-50s). I’m sure a lot of you can sympathize with being stuck inside all day right about now. Once they’re out it’s back to work.
March population boom
The first order of business for a healthy hive is getting its population back up to pre-winter levels. There’s a lot of work to do after all, and that means all fuzzy hands on deck. A lot of bees die during the winter. What might be surprising is that even more die during the summer. The reason there are fewer honeybees in your hive at the beginning of spring is that they aren’t replacing those losses. The queen stops laying eggs, so the surviving bees don’t run out of honey. That’s the same reason they run off all those loutish drones. They just don’t have the resources for bees who aren’t going to be pulling their weight by keeping the hive warm. But now they need to gather enough pollen for next year, so the queen starts pumping out new bees for jobs.
Back to those drones we mentioned. The first thing the queen does (and is probably doing right now) is lay a bunch of drone eggs. Drone eggs don’t need to be fertilized by other drones, the queen lays them herself. Which is good, cause otherwise kicking out all the drones would be pretty darn self-defeating in the long term. The one thing drones are good for is mating with the queen to help her give birth to workers. Since workers are the ones who forage and maintain the hive, getting more of them is the queen’s top priority.
While the queen is hard at work laying eggs, the surviving worker bees aren’t just lazing around. The first thing they’re going to do is release waste for the first time in months. We’ve covered these so-called “cleansing flights” before, and if it was a mild winter they may have already gone on a few, but the important part right now is their secondary purpose: scouting. Some scientists think these long-form potty breaks serve as early reconnaissance for spotting where all the good pollen is.
Once it is warm enough for more than just the occasional trip outside the hive, worker bees can begin foraging in earnest. Ideally, the information they managed to snag during their brief sojourns would help guide them to the areas teeming with the most goodies. Of course, that’s not guaranteed, which is why some workers go straight to foraging and others work on more scouting. In a lot of ways, this period of time isn’t that much different for the average honeybee from the rest of the year. They still need to do the same kind of jobs, get the same kind of supplies from the same kind of flowers. Where things get tricky is the timing.
The problem with March
Both of these goals, boosting hive population and gathering resources, are fine on their own. The trouble comes when they’re happening at the same time, especially if the hive gets active too early. Warm days at the beginning of March can trick some hives into starting foraging early, when there’s not enough pollen around to make it worth the energy expenditure. Bee flight is pretty inefficient and taxing (bees can live months longer when they’re not flying) so if they fly around more then they have to eat more. But if they’re eating without bringing anything back… I’m sure you can see the problem. If bees start foraging before flowers are ready for them, they’ll starve.
Even if a mild March doesn’t trick a hive, they could still be in trouble. It takes about three to four weeks for drone eggs to become drones. That means workers have three weeks to get food production back up to a rate where they can replace what they’re eating before the population boom. There’s a lot of brain power in a beehive, but individual bees aren’t all that smart. A newly hatched drone isn’t going to take stock of how much honey is stored before starting to mate. Neither is the queen. Spring’s the time for having new kids, so that’s what they’re going to do. If the hive starts making new bees faster than it can make new honey, they’re back on the path to starving.
Observe your bees
Now that you know the issue, you might be asking what you can do to help. In the best-case scenario, your bees make it through winter just fine, peak their adorable little heads out to get the lay of the land in February and early March, then get to foraging and bring their population back up from there. All goes well and you don’t need to do anything but start collecting the excess spoils from the hive again. Assuming your hive ends up in dire straits, well that’s what the Beepods Honey Do lists are for. These include steps to making sure you’re doing all you can to give your bees the best shot at making it through this weird and wild month.
The short version is that you need to watch how they’re doing. If it looks like they’re struggling, it might be time to step in and feed your buzzy friends while they get their own manufacturing process off the ground, so to speak. Then, while they kick production back into high gear, you can ease off and let them take care of themselves. Remember to be watchful for issues and take steps as soon as you spot something going wrong. And that’s it! Your bees know their business and it’s your job to help them.
For more on honeybees, visit 23 Remarkable Facts About Honeybees.