The Beekeeper’s Year

Words by
Peter Burling
Association President


As the winter strengthens, so will the bees go into an even tighter ball in order to maintain 16°C-18°C to survive, that’s irrespective of outside temperature. On a nice day, around midday, even with the temperature as low as 6°C some bees will fly on which is called their airing or cleansing flights, with no loo inside, a relief! The beekeeper will monitor their stores by hefting.


This month, weather permitting, bees can become more active not only with their airing flights, but with some gathering of early pollen from crocus, willow or like. Towards the end of the month, the queen will be stimulated to start her years egg laying. The colony will then have to raise the temperature for the new pupae to some 36°C-38°C. This extra heat will have to be generated by the bees converting it from food. As stores are probably already low, with still no nectar coming in, the beekeeper must be especially vigilant as this is a critical month. Any shortfall of stores can be made up by fondant or candy.


Let’s hope by now the weather is warming and increasing amounts of pollen are being brought in, this fed as protein to older larvae and young bees. With no nectar at the moment we still have to watch the main stores as by now they could be critically low. Maybe towards the end of the month there will be a decent day warm enough for shirt sleeve order, that we can light the smoker and delve into the brood chamber. This first inspection is both exciting and anxious, lets hope our concerns will be put to rest by finding a patch of worker brood and by now probably some drone. We check the brood pattern, and the larva for possible diseases. A good time for changing some unoccupied combs, before they are needed for egg laying. With a change of floor board and door blocks away, we are all set for what we hope will be a bumper season.


Busy for both bees and beekeeper. This month we will see some of the highest amounts of pollen of all colours being brought in by the workers. We hear the low hum of the first of the drones leaving the hive on their daily jaunt to join their fellows in the drone congregation which is a social gathering of these male bees, who visit ’NOT A FLOWER’, and on their return they are fed by their sister workers. Inside the brood area, Mum, the Queen, ups her egg laying to around a thousand a day and the adult population rises to around 30,000-40,000. This will of course fill the brood chamber and the beekeeper must now give them more room by adding an extra box. The decision has to be made whether to let the queen roam and lay in the new box or exclude her by putting a special grill between, which will only allow the workers through to deposit nectar which will eventually be honey for us, but we may pay the price at this time of year by losing a swarm through the lack of laying area for the Queen. We shall see!

One thing is certain, with necessary inspections every 10 days or so, it will be all go, no time for big holidays for a while.


With nectar starting to flow from fruit trees and like, the Queen is given that extra boost in egg laying, consequently by the middle of the month, the brood chamber should be full of brood as well as stores. Work will also be under way upstairs in the super (honey box), storing gathered dilute honey.
Extra stores may induce the colony to produce a replacement queen, especially if the present is aging. House bees begin by building an inverted wax cup where an ordinary fertile egg is transferred and stuck. The cup is then flooded by Royal Jelly, a high protein bee-milk produced by nurse bees. This food when the egg has hatched, and fed to the larva, makes the difference in what will now be a queen and what would have been an ordinary incomplete female – worker.

The virgin queen emerges five days quicker than the worker, at sixteen days. During the period prior to this, the old queen has been cut back on her food by the daughters to slim her down, in order that she may fly as she would not have flown since her wedding flight, maybe two to three years, she also stops laying.

On or about a day the virgin queen emerges, depending on the weather, the old Queen will leave the hive and take to the air with anything up to fifteen thousand workers or about a third of the colony. This is known as the ‘prime swarm’, quite a spectacle that should never be feared, as they have gorged themselves on the honey from the hive and they are starting their adventure with Mum. of course they are going to be happy!


A colony that has lost a swarm and sometimes an additional caste (small swarm with a virgin queen), can become quite depleted! What was a large colony, can appear, what with all the goings on, queenless, but you can be pretty sure that there’s a virgin queen running around there somewhere. It all seems to take time, taking her wedding flight with the drones, before you can see the long awaited sightings of eggs and larvae. It can take all of three weeks after the swarm. With a virgin queen in a caste, things seem to move on that much faster as they have a lot more work to do and get her out quicker on her mating flight, so she can start production of bee power, all important if the colony is to have numbers to gather stores to survive the winter

The main colony, now settled down gives its attention to the main ‘honey flow’ which in the suburbs usually starts in the middle of the month, nectar flowing from flowering trees, limes and suchlike. It’s all systems go, make or break for the colony.


By the end of the month most colonies which have had the upheaval of swarming, will have now settled with a mated laying queen. During the period of being broodless and no larvae to feed, a lot of the workforce will be out on location gathering nectar, this the ‘Honey Flow Month’. The gatherers on their return will transfer their haul to house bees who will start converting it into honey with the aid of its own enzymes, before cells on the comb are filled. The beekeeper must keep a good tab on giving the colony plenty of room by maybe slipping an empty super under the full one, this usually encourages the bees to then ripen and cap the cells. The contents are now transformed into ‘honey’.


Well, we’ve nearly come full circle with trees, shrubs and plants giving their all, with nectar heralding the end of the honey flow. The colonies begin to shut down and tend to go into a protective mode guarding their precious stores of honey, some would say “defensive”. That means likely to have a go at wasps and you or anything that is wanting to share their wealth. Maybe this month will see a colony that earlier would have been a prime swarm (with the old queen), supersede, where the colony rears another queen who will depose the old! Well that’s the way it goes but at least the beekeeper does not lose the bees in a swarm.

By the middle of the month the beekeeper will be looking at making the annual assault on the ever present varroa mite, although he/she has been monitoring and maybe treating with various methods throughout the year. This is the big one when all beekeepers get together after the honey is taken off and hit the little devils hard using a natural herb based treatment. We will never be able to eradicate them but we can give an 80% beating, so that the colony goes into the winter in the best possible health.
Before all this treatment, although it’s harmless to all persons, most beekeepers like to take their share of honey, which as I said could prove quite interesting”. First of all we have to ensure that we are leaving some 30 lbs as a minimum requirement of their winter stores, then persuading the bees with various devices to leave the combs, and usually after 48 hours we can return and remove the box which with a bit of luck should be bee-free.

The combs which have a wax capping put on by the bees, only when they have ripened it, are removed. The cappings are then removed by a decapping fork or a knife. The combs are then put into a centrifuge to spin the honey off. The aroma and occasional taste of that liquid gold as it runs from the tap to the jar makes the occasional sting in the season all worth while.
On a sad note the poor old drones in the colony that were not able to mate earlier in the year but were able to live rent free until the flow stopped are now booted out by their sister workers – you are doomed if you do and doomed if you don’t.

Now we have come full circle and I think you must agree that the honey bee is one of the most interesting and necessary creatures on the planet. The ancient Egyptians knew a thing or two with not only the taste of honey but also the medicinal value, and many products of wax. Today they are no less sought after, together with the pollination of fruit and vegetable crops. Next time you have a spoonful of honey, or are popping a wax pill or using hand cream just spare a thought for a small creature that gives us one of the biggest buzzes.


September probably heralds the end of one season and the start of the next, in that the main nectar flow is nearing it’s end with no surplus food coming in until the spring. The drones (male bees) which are no longer required are thrown out to perish by their sister workers (under-developed females). The Queen (mother of colony), lessens her rate of egg laying and the colony numbers of adult bees drops to maybe 20-3000 by the end of the month. The Beekeeper inspects for the health of the bees and treats for the ever present varroa parasite. An assessment is made as to their food store, that has to last them through the winter until about April. Their requirements will be some 30 lbs, shortfalls are made up with sugar syrup, given by way of feeders.


This may be the last inspection before spring where we find a small amount of brood (larvae and sealed pupae). Worker foragers are still bringing in some pollen and nectar – this is mainly ivy. Restrictive entry blocks are put in and mouse guards on to keep out—-you’ve guessed it—-well, with shelter, food and warmth what more could they want.


The Queen, now stopped laying, just her and about 10,000 daughters will see the winter through, and although Mum stays at home, her girls will still trip out on nice days and collect stores and pollen. Checks are made on the hive for wind damage and in some areas, woodpeckers. A good month for cleaning and repairing equipment that will be used for honey production later next year.


The winter weather is now kicking in and some night time temperatures will be plunging to freezing point. The colony starts to go into a ball (cluster) around the Queen, with the shimmering of their wings they convert their food into energy which will keep the ball temperature to some 16°C to 18°C. At Christmas time we may give them a bit of candy or fondant by way of a festive treat, well it makes a change from honey!

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