Each honeybee, together with its colony, responds to annual patterns that are influenced by a region's climate and amount of rainfall. Climate is mainly controlled by the positioning of the sun which produces gradual changes in day length and fluctuations in temperature. These climatic changes influence all forms of life including the flowering times of the native species of trees, shrubs, flowers and other plants in the herbaceous layer. A beekeeper's success is measured by how closely he follows the bee's cycle in response to changes in climate. Any attempt to manipulate, alter, or interrupt this cycle has been unsuccessful because it conflicts with the bee's innate adjustments to these changes. Feeding bees later in the fall or early winter counters the natural cycle of preparation. Bees benefit by having more resources available during early fall so they can prepare for the colder temperatures of winter. Rather, the beekeeper should promote desired behaviors in the colony throughout each phase of these annual patterns.
The first bee that a beekeeper sees during February or March in Michigan has an incredible story. Likely, this worker bee has passed through the egg, larvae, and pupa stages in the previous October. The duties of an individual honeybee shift as they age. Take the winter forager, a hardy bee that really puts in some work. During the depths of winter, this bee has the task of venturing out of the hive in the harsh, snowy conditions to search a scant landscape for nutrition to help produce new bees. The whole colony focuses on keeping warm in January and egg production is generally low. Older bees die with honor during this time having put in a noble effort of helping keep the hive warm. By February, the queen is fed more stored food and stimulated to lay over one hundred eggs per day – up from about two dozen the month prior. The fertile queen lays more and more eggs each week and by late March she is laying about one thousand eggs per day! The pace of hive growth increases greatly during this time to reach over seven thousand bees per week.
The natural patterns are changing and so are the bees. As spring emerges, the days are getting longer, the fresh pollen and nectar sources are beginning to show, and the bees can start accumulating more food. The early flowering Michigan fruit trees are starting to bloom and the queen has reached her maximum rate of laying, over 1500 eggs per day! This is truly astounding – after surviving the winter and maintaining slow hive growth to then reproducing at such a vigorous pace. As the foragers carry pollen and nectar into the hive, bees stationed primarily inside the hive called house bees fill the hexagonal cells with honey. Occupied cells have been either filled with honey or have developing bee brood in varying stages – eggs, larvae and pupae.
Instinctively, honeybees have two main goals. One – bees produced in late spring and early summer have to gather enough pollen and nectar to transform into honey in order to survive another winter. Two – reproduce to peak capacity in order for the colony to split in two, called a swarm. The signal for a swarm is triggered by a colony unable to satisfy the queen's needs because the hive reached full capacity or more. Subsequently, the queen will be stimulated to lay an egg in special cells called queen cups. Once these eggs in the special cup hatch, the larvae is fed royal jelly – the best nutrition the colony can offer. This new queen will develop in about 15 days and emerge to mate immediately. Now, the colony will have to split in two in order to accommodate for the upcoming queen. The next clear sunny day the existing queen will rapidly take flight from the colony with little over half of the bees. They will cluster around a high branch or another safe place while scouting bees search for a new hive location.
Some beekeepers prefer to prevent swarming behavior by adding empty frames to accommodate a strong, growing colony. Others choose to split the colony themselves and place a new queen of their own in another hive. Healthy colonies can build in numbers from 40,000 to 70,000 bees in peak season. An average size colony can produce anywhere from 50 to 60 pounds of honey when the flowering cycles and climate cooperate together.
A larger sized colony with plenty of empty comb will produce more honey than two or three smaller colonies. The timing of placing another honey super on an existing brood chamber or lower box is important. Once a brood chamber is between 80-90% filled with brood, honey, and bees, the beekeeper can add on the next honey super. The use of a queen excluder – a panel of thin metal bars placed between the brood chamber and honey super – helps prevent the queen from laying eggs amongst honey cells. As a result, the beekeeper can select frames from the super for processing and harvest honey without interspersed eggs.
A good student of the honeybee will observe her operations and her environment. Patterns in climate, foliage, and rainfall have a direct correlation to honeybee activity and colony health. To maximize a healthy colony population, the beekeeper must work with the cycles of creation and discern when the proper time is to input his support. Knowledge of colony operations is best gained by careful observation and conscious interaction with the honeybee. The beekeeper must diligently work with the honeybee cycle to share in abundance and enjoy the fruits of this partnership.