The saying is, “build your bees before the flow not during the flow.” But when, exactly? Well, the answer is based on your location, your current assessment of your colonies, and what you anticipate the weather and bloom times will be providing. In the Midlands we often hear beekeepers speak of the start of the buildup corresponding to the bloom of Red Maple. And, notwithstanding a surprise freeze, that is a good indicator as to where nature is currently and when the bees will put all else aside and dedicate all efforts to their buildup.
Using bee math we can add a little more to try to nail down when WE need to support or add to the bees’ efforts by stimulating brood production. To make a foraging bee, and let’s face it that’s what we need to make honey, a little simple arithmetic is needed. Add together: 3 days as an egg, 6 as a larva, and 12 as a pupa = 21. Then add that to approximately three weeks the adult bee will spend as a house bee before graduating to foraging bee. Oh wow, three weeks to make an adult bee and 3 weeks until forager – 6 weeks total.
Now let’s make our best guess as to when the nectar flow will begin. That’s our target date to unleash our foraging bees to collect nectar. Historically, in the Midlands that date is April 1st. But some years it comes a couple weeks early and sometimes it comes late. This is why beekeepers are also obsessed with watching the blooms and temperatures; trying to predict if we will have an early bloom or a late bloom. Adjust this to your prediction but for illustration, I’ll use April 1st..
Taking our knowledge of bee biology and that we have figured out it will take 6 weeks to make a foraging bee, and estimating that we need that bee ready to work on April 1st, we can guesstimate when the queen needs to lay that egg. That date this year, aside from any surprises nature may hand us, is February 19th.
But wait. I don’t just need the all the foraging bees resulting from the eggs laid by the queen on February 19th. No, I need a true foraging force to start the gathering of nectar from the many trees and blooms that will begin Around April 1st. So, knowing that the queen can lay about 1,200 to 2,000 eggs a day I need to begin a tad before February 19th to get a truly large and efficient foraging force.
Assuming I’d like to begin the nectar flow event with all hands on deck and a fully functioning colony (after all the magic in honey bee eusocial efficiency is in their numbers), I need to start at least a week or two prior.
Won’t that early stimulation by feeding cause them to swarm? Won’t they become congested at exactly the wrong time of year? Shouldn’t I split them instead to keep them from swarming? All good questions. Beekeeping isn’t always about easy answers. Yes, stimulation will result in the bees satisfying all of the items needed to lead them to believe they have the perfect situation to do what they want to do – reproduce. On splits, David MacFawn gives a good lecture on the economics of the colony in which he calculates the cost of moving frames during the build up by making splits. A deep frame of brood with clinging bees is approximately 9,000 bees (2,000 adults and potentially 7,000 immatures). Doing the math David calculates that to result in a loss of ~ $75 of honey. (and this does not calculate the stress and loss of efficiently within the superorganism).
When I started beekeeping I was taught to hope for a colony to make 40 pounds of honey per season here in the Midlands. (I suspect many make less than this as on average.) I accepted that. I even met beekeepers that had moved here from the Midwest that quit beekeeping after a few years of our less than ideal honey crops. Then after a few years I started seeing over performers. Colonies that made 80 pounds or more. One year I captured an early super swarm that filled two 10 frame Langstroth hive bodies (deep and shallow). They made 99 3/4 pounds of honey that same year. A light bulb came on for me somewhere along the way. It wasn’t the Midlands to blame. It was my management. Within two years I was averaging 60 lbs per hive and that was counting the ones that failed to make a drop over colony needs.
If you want to produce a large honey crop, it involves management of large colonies. One must simply accept that it takes two things to make honey: 1) a large force of foraging bees that start on day one of the nectar flow and 2) a lot of work using swarm management techniques to prevent the bees from swarming. One must accept that it is work getting into the hives to prevent them from swarming.
I suggest to those wishing to make a crop of honey the free online books and articles available on Swarm Prevention and Control. There are online resources from many, many sources. The older books are also of great value. These resources speak to the management techniques that result in a large population while keeping the bees at home. Hope this is of some help to those that wish to make honey this year.