The Summer Solstice and Honey Bees

I was just about to write a post about this when Rusty Burlew beat me to it!  Rusty is a beekeeper in the state of Washington and, while we don’t see eye-to-eye on many aspects of beekeeping, I find many of her articles to be helpful.

Below is an excerpt from her article titled “Your Beekeeping Year is About to Change.”  She addresses the very thing I wanted to write to you all about, and it’s this: Believe it or not, honey bees in the northern hemisphere will now begin preparing for winter!

Here’s the excerpt:

“The beekeeping year can be divided into two halves. One half is characterized by expansion, and the other by contraction. Tomorrow we begin the next phase. Whether you live in the northern hemisphere or the southern, the solstices mark the boundaries, the points at which things begin to change.

The most important concept in beekeeping

If I were to write a book on beekeeping, this is where it would begin. Relatively unimportant issues like how to feed, where to put a hive, or how to inspect would be relegated to the appendix. The how-to part of beekeeping is unimportant compared to the the why of it. Once you understand how bee colonies respond to their environment—what they do and why—the how-to stuff becomes easy. You can figure it out without instructions because you understand the purpose.

The honey bee lifestyle is much easier to understand when you look at bees as a part of the natural world, not the man-made one. Honey bees respond to cues provided by nature, and once you understand their place in the ecosystem, their life cycle begins to make sense.

The end of a phase

Trouble arises because we look at the seasons in a different way than bees do. Here in the northern hemisphere, many of us are celebrating the first day of summer. Clear skies, warm water, t-shirts, and sandals. But bees respond differently. For them, the summer solstice signals the long slow slide into winter. The amount of daylight decreases, spring bounty is followed by weeks of drought, nectar sources disappear. Your bees notice these changes right away, even if you don’t. Although it may seem impossible to you, your colonies are about to get smaller.

Easing your bees into the next season

Some researchers say honey bees respond directly to changes in daylight, while others say they don’t. But regardless of how it works, we know that brood rearing increases soon after the winter solstice, and decreases soon after the summer solstice. You won’t notice it right away, of course. There is a lag between what the bees do and what we see. However, if you understand what is occurring within the colony, you can predict what happens next. Acting on that knowledge is called beekeeping.

In July new beekeepers often complain that their bees won’t move up to another super, won’t store any honey, or are beginning to act defensive. They want to know if they should re-queen or “force” the bees into another super. Others continue to fret about swarming even though swarm season is over and their bees are much more likely bearding than swarming.

But once a beekeeper understands his colony is no longer in expansion, he can help ease them into winter rather than forcing them to do something unnatural. The same holds true in winter. Although you can’t see inside your colony in winter, you can see your calendar. After the winter solstice, it’s time to ease your colony into spring, providing whatever they might need.


Let your bees shift their priorities

The take-home message is simple. Just remember that your bees are about to shift gear. In the northern hemisphere, colonies will soon start to contract. In the southern hemisphere, they will start to expand. When your colony does something you don’t expect, ask yourself if it is expanding or contracting. Think about that one fact, and the rest will fall into place.”


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