Most beekeepers agree that all beekeeping is local. That’s what I was taught, that’s what I know, and I agree. What folks do in the northeast or out west is different from what happens in the hot, humid southeast. The timing of each beekeeping responsibility varies as well, to match the temperature, season, and length of season. With that said, here is a rough calendar of beekeeping responsibilities as we see them in Georgia, at Finny Farm.
Once cold weather is upon us, there’s nothing to with the bees themselves, but there always a project to work on. The hives must stay sealed up tight due to the winter chill, but beekeepers are constructing hive boxes, frames, and dreaming of the year full of bees. The bees are clustered up in a ball keeping warm.
As cold as it might seem, inside the hive, the bees start to become active. The queen starts to brood-up (lay more eggs). This is all in preparation of the coming spring. Since it takes approximately, 45 day from when a queen lays an egg to when they bee will be ready to forage outside the hive, those eggs laid on Feb 15th will be ready to visit some flowers around April 1st. The beekeeper is simply planning and plotting his year, and making sure there is enough equipment for the bees.
Now we are off to the races. It’s warming up, the bees are emerging and flying weather has shown up. This is when the beekeeper tries to outsmart the bees. Bees’ natural instinct is to simply multiply, or make more bees. They do this by building up large populations in the springs and the queen and ½ the hive leaves (swarms). They leave the other ½ in the original hive and that hive makes a new queen. That process is pretty complicated, so I’ll leave that for another time, but here is one method I use to keep it from happening. (By the way, losing ½ your bees to swarming is bad for the beekeepers because if a hive swarms, there will be no excess honey crop) This is the time to make artificial swarms or ‘splits’. I take the queen and 2 frames of brood and put in a nuc (small 5 frame hive). The bees will expand and create a new full sized hive, but won’t have the desire to swarm because their “new colony” isn’t big enough yet. The original hive will maintain most of their population and create a new queen. When this works correctly, the beekeeper turns 1 hive into 2 and will still get a honey crop.
The original hive is now making a new queen. Additionally, all those eggs from the original queen are now emerging, beginning to fly out of the hive and collecting nectar. The bees are the busiest now that they will be all year. In Georgia, we only have a short nectar window, approximately 8 week. The job of the beekeeper is to make sure that there are enough empty frames on the hive for the bees to keep filling. This is why I build frames and boxes in the winter.
There should now be a new queen and she is going to be laying like crazy as she should have lots of open cells and generous amounts of food coming into the hive. In regards to nectar and honey, this month is the same as April. The rule of thumb is to add a new box of frames when the last one added is 70-80% full. In a really good flow, a strong hive can fill make 30-35 lbs of honey in a week. Yes, that’s right. Those are some busy bees.
I think this months should be called "divide and conquer". As the nectar kept coming in over the past 8 weeks, the bees kept expanding. This means that when the nectar ends around the beginning of June, all those babies from the new queen are just emerging. The "divide" part is because we are now going to make summer splits. Again, this is taking 2 frames of bee/brood/eggs/honey and the queen, and put the in a nuc. The original hive will again make another queen and the nuc will work on expanding toward a full sized colony be the end of the year. The "conquer" part is because its now time to harvest honey!!!!!!!
It's hot! The bees are hot! Everything is hot! The beekeeper will make sure that all their honey is bottled and ready for market. The new queen is starting to lay eggs and the bees are storing the little bit of forage they can find for the upcoming winter. There are 2 things that the beekeeper can do for his girls. 1, make sure there is enough ventilation. 2, make sure that they have a source of water to cool the hive.
In case you weren't aware, it's still hot! An available water source is important so that the bees can cool the hive. This is their a/c unit. This is also the time where the bee population is going down, but the biggest nemesis of modern beekeepers, the varroa mite, is quickly increasing in population. In short, varroa mites showed up in the US around the mid-80s. Now, virtually every hive has them. It's not a question of if you have them, it's how many do you have. I don't give my hives harsh chemical treatments, but I do treat my hives through natural methods because i don't want to lose my bees. Honey supers are never on when the hive is treated, either with chemicals or naturally.
Although it's hot, it's won't be for much longer. Georgia normally has a small fall flow of golden-rod which the bees devour, but it's not for sure, not consistent, and can't be counted on for winter stores. That will start in October, but until then, it's imperative that the bees are storing the food they will consume between December and March. Since they really haven't had much to gather since mid-June, it's very important to inspect at this time. Upon inspection, if there isn't enough honey stored away, most beekeepers (this one included) feed sugar water to their bees. Fall feeding is generally 2:1 (2 parts sugar to 1 part water). It's thick, but that's what they store well. In this part of Georgia, bees need about 30 lbs of honey to survive our short winter. That equates to about a full medium super of honey. It's important to start early, because once the temperature gets to below 50 degrees f, they won't eat the sugar water anymore. Not enough food in the fall or early spring will give you a hive that has starved in March. #heartbreak!
With final preparations in mind, i'm thinking about hive set up. In other words, is the bee-hive set up in the best way to survive until March? While I have several different variations, the goals are the same. Goal one is to have a robust population of bees to make a good sized cluster. Goal two is to have 30-35 lbs of honey. Goal three is to have no more space than is needed to hold the bees and the honey. The less space in the hive at this point, the less they have to guard and protect. It's also important to reduce the entrance of the hive greatly, but also to provide ventilation. It's very rare for bees to perish in the winter due to cold, especially in Georgia. However, if there is no ventilation, and the bees get wet from built up moisture in freezing weather, the result is a dead hive.
Finally it's cooling off! check/treat for mites- done. feed the bees- done. golden rod flowing- yes. reduce the entrance of the hive- done. proper ventilation- done. We are now in the final stretch and about ready for winter.
Merry Christmas! I hope that you get lots of beekeeping goodies from Santa!