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(All beekeeping is local. The dates given below as for the Midlands of South Carolina. Adjust for your location and climate.)
Not long ago, someone asked when we should start feeding the bees. The answer given was another question – What are your goals?
We want to building strong colonies but for what purpose? To catch the nectar flow? To make splits?, nucs?, or early pollination purposes? Each goal has a different start date.
Much of what we do with our bees involves looking forward. Last year I wrote a piece on when we should start the push towards building them up for purposes of capturing the nectar flow. I’ll bump that article to the top at a later date when it’s more relevant. Today, though, I’d like to think through another planning exercise for the beekeeper wanting to make strong splits from overwintered colonies.
I like bee math!
An experienced mentor and bee buddy of mine called me recently to ask if I wanted to order some early season queens. He caught me off guard just a bit because I really had not done my math homework for the coming splits season. Well, I’d better get hopping and decide if I’m going to order queens or make queenless splits.
And if I’m going to make spilts, when do I need to get busy?
Framing the issue:
We know from prior swarm seasons and winners of the “Golden Hive Tool Award” (given to the first captured swarm of each season) that swarming in the Midlands starts as soon as late, late February but typically early, early March and will remain strong for a month to six weeks into April then taper with an occasional spurts and sputters along the way.
We know that nature provides natural pollen and nectar for buildup in the Midlands around early to mid February (give or take). Some people see some earlier and this is climate and location dependent. So in nature we see feed for the bees a ~ month or so before swarming.
We know that the climate is still a bit dicey March 1st with occasional surprise freezes which could impact the survival of splits. I’m not sure I want to tempt Midlands weather.
March 1st looks to be an intersection between climate and colony readiness.
So, with natures help,some colonies are ready to swarm as early as ~ March 1. What constitutes being “ready?” Well, colony swarm preparations are a topic in itself but one hardwired componet is drone production. So we deduce that swarming colonies will have made drones ready to mate. I presume nature and the bees assume other colonies have done the same so as to provide some genetic diversity. But back to the point. If a colony is ready to swarm with ready drones when did they start those drones? The answer might help me as to when to start pushing buildup.
Let’s try to nail down a date to promote drone production by reviewing our bee math for drones: 3 days as an egg; 6 1/2 days as a larvae, and capped by day 10. 14 days as a pupa – 24 days. Right? Oh, but we must not forget that that drone is but a wee tot when born and needs to get to his “adolescence” to be ready for mating. That occurs after another 14 days give or take. Okay, I need to start making drones 38 days prior to making queenless splits. Right?…Wrong. Remember that if I make a split the bees will have to begin queen cells and we don’t need ready drones at the start of queen cells. We need them to coincide with the time it takes to make a queen and allow her to “harden” ready for her mating flight. Oh my, that probably negates some of my original calculations.
Nature tells me it will start making the splits for me (i.e. swarm) around March 1st. Let’s use that a  date that nature chooses as the earliest date swarms are likely to survive and use subtraction to come to the date I need to start building up my hives in order to maximize my success with queenless splits. March 1st minus 38 days leaves me at January 16th. I know this date as the birthday of Johann Dzierzon, father of parthenogenesis. (In animals, parthenogenesis means development of an embryo from an unfertilized egg cell. Ain’t that a coincidence?) But, as much as I would like to start pushing for drone production on Johann’s birthday, remember I need to deduct (or add back) the time for the colony to create a mating ready queen or approximately 20 to 24 days. My head is starting to hurt. Okay, January 16 plus 24 days = February 7th (or three days before Ormond Aebi’s birthday).
Isn’t it a curiosity that my efforts at calculations results in a bunch of needless time wasting when mother nature gave me the buildup date to begin with – the bloom of Red Maples! That is, when the maples bloom is the start date when nature itself provides the necessary ingredients to maximize successful colony reproduction on a date conducive to climate and impending nectar flow. You can’t fool mother nature. I’m exhausted but it serves me right. Beekeepers should probably reply to questions like this with bloom dates rather than calendar dates.