Honey Bees and the Winter Solstice

The annual cycle for a honey bee colony is much easier to understand when you look at bees from the standpoint of their over-riding goal: survival of the species.

Throughout the year, honey bees respond to external cues provided by nature – they don’t keep a wall calendar inside their hive – and once you understand how honey bees reproduce, their two-season life cycle begins to make sense.

A year for a honey bee colony can be divided into two halves.  One half is characterized by expansion, and the other by contraction.  The half that is characterized by expansion begins soon after the winter solstice.  Some research seems to indicate that honey bees respond directly to changes in the amount of daylight, while other research says that 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.

Shortly after the winter solstice, many things happen inside the colony to increase brood production.  For example, the workers begin to raise the temperature of the brood nest.  These warmer temperatures stimulate the queen to lay eggs—just a few at first, but more and more as time goes on.  Of course, keeping the colony warmer requires more honey stores just when those stores begin to be depleted.  So the colony has to manage a very delicate balance of population-to-stores.

Why the expansion?  Why now?  The answer is simple: reproduction.  The colony is preparing to capitalize on the window of opportunity to reproduce that will come in the early spring.  How does a colony reproduce?  By casting a swarm.

When a colony casts a swarm, the existing queen, and the worker bees they choose to go with her, leave the hive and find a new location in which to live.  Their challenge is to create a new hive from scratch; they have to recreate all of the comb, propolis, pollen stores, honey stores, and new brood.  They can take none of this with them except for the honey they store in their nectar crops before leaving as a swarm.  So, enough bees have to leave with the swarm in order to have the critical mass to get this done.  The number of bees that leave with the swarm is critical.

The remaining bees, in the original hive, have the challenge of making a new queen.  This means that they will have a period of time where no new forager bees are being born.  So, they have to be left with enough honey and pollen to feed the new brood that they will eventually start raising, and also carry them until the new ranks of foragers begin adding to the stores being brought back to the hive.  So, the number of bees that are left behind is also critical.

Again, a very delicate balance.  But, in order to provide both colonies with enough bees to make their separate existence viable, the original colony  must begin expanding in size soon after the winter solstice.


Autumn Activities

As we move into autumn with its shorter days, cooler temperatures, lower angle of sunlight, and rapidly diminishing forage for the bees, we will begin to see a declining level of coming and going at each hive.

It’s late October, 2017, here in the Upper Arkansas River Valley, which lies between 6500 and 9500 feet in elevation, and even though we’re still seeing a little bit of pollen being brought back to the hives, especially on days that are sunny, warm, and still, it’s nothing like the level of activity we witnessed through the summer.

So, as we move deeper into autumn, what are the bees doing?  Here are a few of the things we know they’re doing in preparation for winter:

  • The workers (all females) are evicting the drones (the male bees).  All of the roles and purposes that the drones fulfill in both their home hive, and in the inter-connectedness of all the honey bee colonies within their region, is still beyond our ken.  Much more research needs to be done on this, but it’s coming.  One thing we do know, however, is that the colonies do not carry the drones through the winter.
  • The workers are busy chinking any remaining cracks with propolis.  It’s very important that they not lose excessive heat from the hive during the winter.  One way we can help with this is by being certain that the hive is out of the wind.  Do we need to build an additional windbreak?
  • The bees are busy building any final burr comb that they need to control the route of ventilation through the hive.  Their goal, inside the hive, is a careful balance between ventilation and heat loss.  Ventilation is important because it allows them to create a healthy environment and control factors like relative humidity.  (Conventional beekeepers constantly remove this burr comb because they find it inconvenient to their highly invasive relationship with the hive.)
  • They are bringing back any final sources of pollen and nectar that they can find.
  • All summer long they have been building comb, storing nectar (which they make into honey), and storing pollen.  They have been placing each of these in ways that will best insulate their hive while also providing food that they can easily reach as they work their way up through it during the winter.  Their goal, as they eat their way up through the stored honey, is that they are always in the warmest spot in the hive.  (This is just one of the reasons why it’s so devastating for a conventional beekeeper to remove honey off the top of a hive.)  The bees will put whatever finishing touches they can on the internal construction of the hive given the remaining resources they have to work with in late autumn.
  • They are on the lookout for sources of water that will be available even through the winter.  (This is one area in which we can help.  See the post “Safely Providing Water for Honey Bees.)
  • As a super-organism they will collectively evaluate the condition of the hive and the amount of resources they have to carry them through the winter.  Based on this collective evaluation, the queen will begin to lay fewer and fewer eggs so that they reach the number of bees in the colony that they believe is optimum for their survival.  This is a balance between enough bees to heat the hive and care for new brood as the next spring approaches, but not so many that they cannot feed them all.

So, as honey bee stewards and hive hosts, what can we do to support the bees in all that they’re doing to prepare to survive the winter?

  • Do not remove their food (the honey) that they have so industriously been creating and storing in order to survive the winter.  Their honey provides nutrition, energy for creating heat, and insulation.  It is a “triple-whammy” to remove their honey, especially if it is removed from the top of the hive.  Remember that, to a honey bee colony, there is no such thing as “surplus honey.”  They are storing honey against the possibility of a long, cold winter, followed by a drought the next summer, followed by another long, cold winter.
  • Do not open the hive and break their carefully constructed propolis seals.  By autumn, they may not have the resources of worker bees and tree sap to repair these cracks.
  • Be certain that the hive is out of the wind.  Your hive location was chosen, as best as possible, to be out of the wind, but that was last spring.  Has the wind direction changed as autumn has arrived?  Does an additional windbreak need to be constructed?
  • Be certain that the hive is level and that the strap around it is tight.
  • If inside an electrified fence, be certain that an adequate charge is traveling through the fence.  Weeds that grow up and touch the fence will short it out.
  • Provide a consistent source of fresh, still, warm water for the bees.  It is best not to start this unless you can be consistent with it through the winter.  Once they have identified a water source it becomes a habit, and you cause them to waste energy if they fly to the usual spot only to find it dry.  But if you can provide this consistent water source it can be very rewarding for both you and the bees.  The bees will fly on sunny, still days during the winter in order to do cleansing flights (eliminate outside the hive).  They will take that opportunity to also look for water to bring back to the hive.  Here’s the link about that:

A Tale of Abscondence

Although somewhat rare, it is certainly not unheard of for an entire colony of honey bees to suddenly leave their hive in search of a new place to live.  This phenomenon is referred to as “absconding,” and, after occurring, the bees are said to have “absconded.”

Of course, to us it seems “sudden” because we have no idea how long the bees took to make this decision.  Nor does anyone know why they do it.  There may be a lot of reasons why a colony decides to do this.  What’s fascinating is that, as a super-organism, they come to this decision corporately and all leave together at the same time.

Today I visited a hive that had clearly absconded.  There were many clues.

In this first photo you can see that there are bees in the hive, but there are no eggs, larvae, or capped brood.  Thus, there is no queen.  So, at least in this case, these bees do not live in this hive.

Abscond 01

So what are these bees doing there?  They are robbing-out the nectar and pollen that was left behind.  You can clearly see the pollen in this next photo.  It is the yellow substance in the cells:

Abscond 01b

Another clue that these bees don’t live in this hive is that there are bees in here that are unrelated.  Look at the difference in the coloration:

Abscond 01c

There was also another HUGE clue that the original colony absconded rather than perished.  Below is a photo of the top of the base.  There are a few live, robbing bees on the base, but NOT A SINGLE DEAD BEE ANYWHERE IN THE HIVE.  If the original colony had perished for some reason there would be a large pile of dead bees lying on the top of the base.

Abscond 02

But there is yet another clue in the hive that tells the story of what happened to this colony.  Below is a photo of two queen cells that were built after this colony was installed in this hive.  Due to their placement on the comb, these would be considered classic “emergency” queen cells.  The bees build emergency queen cells when the queen dies or fails suddenly.

Abscond 03

So, what’s the story here?

For some reason, the queen in this colony failed or died suddenly.  But when it happened there were still eggs, or larvae less than three days old, from which the bees could make a new queen.  (They almost always make more than one queen cell to increase their odds of getting a viable, mated queen to continue the life of the colony.)

But in addition to this, and for whatever reason – and these two things are not necessarily related – the colony also decided to abscond once they had their new queen.

Here’s the bad news for this honey bee host:  The colony is no longer living in this hive.

But there are several points of good news:

  • This colony is most likely still alive.
  • This colony may very well be living on this host’s property or very nearby.
  • This colony is most likely still pollinating this host’s flowering plants.  (The colony would remember the location of the flowers they were already foraging on.)
  • It’s likely that some of the bees robbing-out (and therefore using) that remaining nectar and pollen are from the original colony.  (They would also remember the location of their original hive.)
  • This host has contributed to the proliferation of honey bees living in the wild in our valley.

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.”

A report on Bee Tree Hives™ hive boxes

Unlike what they experience in modern, conventional beekeeping equipment, i.e. Langstroth hives, in the wild, honey bees often choose a cavity for their hive that is very rough on the inside.  These rough surfaces stimulate the production of propolis which they use to coat the interior of the hive to smooth-out those rough surfaces.  Langstroth hives are already smooth on the inside and so the bees rarely, if ever, coat the inside of the hive boxes with propolis.

Propolis is a natural anti-microbial substance that kills bacteria, viruses, fungi, and other microbes.  The propolis coating in a hive is one of the main reasons that a honey bee hive is one of the cleanliest, most sanitary places on earth.

Because the bees do not coat the already smooth interior surfaces of Langstroth hive boxes, scientists who study honey bees are beginning to wonder if perhaps the use of Langstroth hives has contributed to the decline of honey bee health and vitality.

So, Bee Tree Hives™ have hive boxes with rough surfaces on the inside.  Below is a photo of a colony installed in a Bee Tree Hive™ just a few weeks ago.  You can see that they are already beginning to coat the rough surfaces with golden-brown propolis.

Propolis on Rough Surfaces