(All beekeeping is local. The dates given below are guidelines for the Midlands of South Carolina. Adjust to your local area as needed.)
This time of year both beekeepers and the honey bees are working towards the same short term goals but for different reasons.
Let’s start with some bee math. We can expect a bee born this time of year to have a life expectancy of approximately 5 or 6 weeks. Of those 6 weeks only approximately 3 weeks will be spent as a forager.
We also know, based on information provided to us by our seasoned mentors, that here in the Midlands we can expect our nectar flow to begin, in earnest, around late March / early April and to last approximately until the first week of June.
To gather the greatest amount of nectar (ultimately honey) and to get the most comb drawn during that 2 month window of strong nectar flow we must have all hands on deck on day one of the nectar flow. Meaning a colony at its peak of nectar gathering abilities, fully staffed to handle the challenge of millions of blooms occuring in a short period of time. (Think of it as having enough wait staff in a restaurant just prior to dinner hour. Too few staff and things just don’t get done.)
The bees want the same thing we do at the same time. They want a full staff on day one of the nectar flow. Missing the mark and showing up with a full staff at the end of the nectar flow is useless and, in fact, a burden on the colony’s ability to feed lots of bees after the nectar is gone.
So, it seems we have a mutual goal between beekeeper and honey bee – lots of bees on day one of what amounts to their work shift.
Let’s make a best guess as to when Day One occurs based on history as given to us by our mentors and say it’s April 1st here in the Midlands. Should I run an ad in Free Times advertising for Help Wanted to help with this year’s nectar flow?
“Seasonal Help Wanted: Honey Bees to help gather nectar during this year’s nectar flow. Must be willing to travel and be in foraging phase of life.”
No, probably won’t work. But using bee math and the bees own instincts for this time of year we can determine how to get those bees. I need a three week old bee available on April 1st. Given it takes 21 days from egg to birth and then allowing for the three week age requirement for the job, I can determine that a new foraging bee on April 1st was an egg exactly 6 weeks before the nectar flow began. Also, since the queen can only lay a set amount of eggs a day – perhaps 1,200 or maybe a bit more, I had better start even before that 6 weeks if I want a FULL staff on day one of the nectar flow.
Still with me? Great because the good, and bad, parts are coming soon.
What this means for you today (Feb. 20th), is that we are just now at that date when an egg layed today will get her work permit as a 3 week old forager on the first week of April. That’s good! Another thing that’s good is the bees have already been ramping up and your queen should be a laying machine right now. What you want to do is encourage that queen and that colony to continue this egg laying, brood rearing mania, tirelessly for the next 60 days. Important: Do you know how to do this?
Now for the bad news. Your reasons for the buildup are not the same as the bees. You both want a buildup and on that point you support each other’s efforts. However, because you have different end goals you have to understand each other’s motivations if you are going to be successful partners.
I’ll try to be gentle but, you see, they (the bees) want to move out. Not all of them; just about 60% and the queen. They’re preparing now for their move. You may have thought they were building up for the nectar flow and you’re right, they are, but they see the start of the nectar flow as providing the means for a successful move. We call it a swarm; they call it reproduction. By moving out at the start of the nectar flow it gives them the best chance of building a new home and surviving.
For the beekeeper this is like half of your employees leaving just as your grand opening day presents itself. And the amount of work to be done is so great that you’ll not get it done if you lose more than half those employees (well, you’ll probably get enough for them but not you).
So, the dilemma is to convince the bees they’d actually like to stay around in their current home for just a while longer. Very Important: Do you know how to do this?
Heck, convince them that if they stay, in June you’ll actually help them move (i.e. make split).