Beekeeping is a year-round responsibility. The difference between having bees and keeping bees really comes down to your ability to invest in the success of the colony. To do this successfully, we as beekeepers have to acknowledge both the financial costs and investments in time and attention to our bees. Corwin Bell, a beekeeper, owner of BackyardHive, and creator of the Cathedral Hive has coined the phrase "Bee Guardian." I really like this idea of us being guardians to our bees. To be properly be true guardians of our bees, we must have a solid understanding of the annual responsibilities we need to plan for both during busy and winter seasons.
"Beekeeping is a year-round responsibility. The difference between having bees and keeping bees really comes down to your ability to invest in the success of the colony."
There are, without end, plenty of different management styles. Grab 3 beekeepers in a room and ask them a question and you'll get about 6 answers; all drastically contradictory and fueled with passion compared to the one before it. It is expected that many beekeepers may disagree with this management plan. The goal of this post is to give beekeepers a guide to their annual management. It is not a black-and-white protocol. Treatment-free beekeepers, for example, will take issue with many of the integrated pest management (IPM) techniques listed in this post. Beekeepers focused on replicating hives for pollination or sale vs. creating production hive for honey sales will disagree with the extracting of honey and would rather give that honey back to the bees.
This is NOT the only way to keep bees.
An additional caveat is this plan will differ greatly depending on the state, Enviroment, elevation, and climate you choose to keep your bees. For the sake of clarification, these plans best align with the climate and environments found across most of Virginia on average each year.
Know your Zone. Knowing your agricultural or planting zone as outlined by the USDA is a key identifier for your annual planning when it comes to pollinators. You can go to the USDA website and find out by zip code where you are located.
When we look at the "bee season" at a macro level, we divide the year into four sections that align with the seasons. General planning and tasks also line up with what's going on outside the hive related to weather, hours of sunlight and humidity. We will take a look at tasks, considerations, planning and preparation needed monthly to ensure the survival of the colony.
JANUARY in VIRGINIA
Contrary to popular belief, the hive is not "dormant" or in hibernation over the winter months. While the population and metabolism have decreased, the hive is hopefully very alive, with a queen still laying a small number of eggs surrounded by a tight cluster. They have hopefully stored enough food for winter, as they will need to consume calories in order to burn energy to create heat. Occasionally in January Virginia experiences some "warm days" over 50 degrees (f). Depending on the population, health, and strength of the hive, temperatures between 45-50 degrees (f) will trigger them to break cluster and do some house cleaning. cleansing flights are common and allow the colony to clear out some of the mess collected over the winter months. Use these warm days to check food stores and replace with DRY feed whenever possible.
Snowfall in Virginia is a funky thing. It comes and goes in a varying levels of severity sometimes sticking around for weeks and freezing over while other "blizzards" are whipped from existence by the following abnormally warm afternoon. After a large snowfall, check on the hives to ensure the entrances are free of obstruction. The name of the game all winter-long is ventilation. The two biggest obstructions to proper ventilation are snow and dead bees building up at the entrance.
I'm a visual person so I like to see things written out in front of me so I can organize my tasks. Get yourself a white board and draft out your expected needs for the next season. Review your available equipment and order, assemble, and clean any equipment you may need for the upcoming spring. You can NEVER have enough nuc boxes.
Winter is a great time to learn. If you are a beekeeper, you probably got some bee-related stuff for the holidays. Read up on the latest research being published, watch videos, read books and get your mind ready for what the colonies are going to challenge you with during the busy season.
FEBRUARY in VIRGINIA
Traditionally February is one of Virginia's more snow-filled months. Continue to be diligent with checking the ventilation of the hive. Like in January, warm days will prompt the colony to cleanse and clear out debris. Consider opening entrance reducers to clear out any bees that may be stuck in front. This is also a good time to treat with oxalic acid to keep the winter bees free from parasitic mite syndrome.
The bees should, if they survived winter, be completing cleansing flights on the warmer days over 50 degree (f). Assess food stores and replenish dry feed. If you use quilt boxes, assess the burlap or wood shavings for moisture and replace as needed.
Clear dead bees away from the entrance reducer. While its open, consider an OA vaporization while brood levels are low. To be completely effective, the OA treatment should be repeated weekly for 3 weeks. Weather must cooperate with this plan, since we need the cluster to be loose if not entirely broken to get the best infiltration of the vapor to all areas of the hive and cells. Replenish food stores as needed. Consider a yard feeder of dry pollen substitute like UltraBee.
Swarm season is coming. Ensure you have the right equipment, traps, lures and other things to get ready to keep your bees happy and in your yard. Order any nucs or packages from your local bee farm or supplier. Continue to build hives for the spring as needed. Look out for beekeeping classes for both beginner and intermediate beekeepers.
MARCH in VIRGINIA
While march can start to bring more consistent warm temperatures to the Commonwealth, It is well known to be a month of random winter weather, frosty nights. This can be a tough time for the colony as they start to up their brood rearing, metabolism, and food consumption. It is important to stay on top of their food stores and keep them fed. Strong colonies are known to go through a lot of food quickly this time of year. Pollen sources include crocus, daffodil, boxwood, hackberries, forsythia and elm tress.
Continue to monitor food stores. Some studies suggest a strong colony can eat as much as 7lbs of honey per week, especially if the weather turns cold again and the girls are cooped up and not able to replace what they are consuming. Continue to assess for a tight brood pattern and make sure honey stores are not in the brood nest.
Flipping your brood boxes in a double deep hive or checker boarding are ways to ensure there is room in the brood nest and prevent swarming. If you subscribe to these tactics, March is a good time of year to intervene. Wait for a day in the 50's to do a full inspection to assess the status of the hive and check for diseases via a sugar roll or alcohol wash. Pollen Patty feeding is also a good idea to do in March. Ensure supplemental feeding continues, as food stores can drop precipitously prior to the nectar flow starting. Consider switching supplemental feeding back to a 1:1 syrup with brood-building essential oils as temps allow. Consider removing and wrapping you did for winterization. Overwintered hives may start to need their entrances widened. Loose your bees over winter? Asses how they died by reading this.
If the weather is consistently warm enough, the time to start treating for mites will begin soon. If not the end of march, the beginning of April. Consider reading up on integrated pest management from the honey bee health coalition and getting your supplies ready. Have you joined a bee club yet? Research bee clubs in your area and attend a meeting.
APRIL in VIRGINIA
Spring is in full swing come mid April. The Farmer's Almanac usually expects frost to continue until the 10-16th of April. Strong hives will double their worker population. Pollen and nectar sources include dandelions, pears, cherries, magnolias, plums, and ornamental shrubs.
Swarms will begin towards the end of April. Assess for the need for added space. Consider switching supplemental feeding back to a 1:1 syrup with brood-building essential oils. If the colony has overwintered, they may stop taking syrup by the middle of the month. Look for queen cells and identify if they are swarm, supersedure, or emergency cells. Queens take 16 days to emerge as a quality, well nourished adult (however sometimes it can take as little as 10 days). We typically wait to do splits until we see drones walking on comb in the hive. This typically occurs during April
It's time to start installing bees. Most packages arrive in the commonwealth in early April. Nuc colonies are available after state inspection (if coming from out of state) towards the end of the month. Ensure a complete inspection of the hive is done by mid month. Nectar flows begin to increase in strength towards the end of the month so ensure honey super are on the hives. Remove any quilt boxes or other winterization items by the first week of the April. The entrance may need to be widened. Think about visiting a green house near you and planting plants that attract pollinators.
April preparation is swarm preparation. The tempretures are typically too low at night for ideal swarm weather, but it has been known to happen. Ensure you have extra NUCs handy. Build, bait, and position swarm traps on your property and surrounding areas. Get those supers ready to go on when you see the dandelions blooming.
MAY in VIRGINIA
Full production is in full effect by May. All winterization items should be long gone, stored and assessed for repair. This is peak egg laying and the population of the hive will soon reach its peak by the end of the month. Nectar and pollen sources include tulips, blackberry, clovers, ivy, and raspberries. Nectar storage can get as high as 7lbs daily. A young queen is often thought to be at her peak fertility during this time of year, laying around 1000 eggs a day.
Assess the honey supers for room. Check the hive for swarm behavior and intervene accordingly, especially if the colony has successfully overwintered. Late swarms in May and June can set both the split and mother hive up for a bit of a struggle as this is a time to work the honey flow and not be focused on replication of the colony. If you queen is more than 2 years old, watch for signs of failing laying patterns. Asses for loose or sparse brood patterns, significant amount of drone comb, laying workers, etc.
Ensure honey suppers continue to be added to keep honey stores out of the brood nest. If signs of a failing queen exists, consider combining the colony or requeening with a strong, young queen. Take a class on honey harvesting.
The first steps of winter prep should begin now. Think about how you plan on getting your bees though winter. Take a class about overwintering. Begin to purchase or build equipment such as quilt boxes and slotted racks to improve ventilation and airflow. In addition for preparing for winter, The next few months, pulling honey from the hive for extraction may be part of your management plan. Make sure you have a plan to complete that, as keeping frames of honey in storage is an invitation for pests. Also start thinking about honey harvesting. How are you going to accomplish it? What equipment do you need? Clubs that provide rentals and extraction time typically fill up quickly in June.
JUNE in VIRGINIA
Population peak typically occurs in June, as many as 50-60 thousand bees!. Lots of bees need lots of room and areas to store honey. The hot months mean taking time not only for the bees, but for yourself in the yard. Keep yourself hydrated and take breaks between hives so you don't get too overwhelmed by the heat and humidity.
Continue to allow your hives to grow June is a big month for honey flows and can bring large amounts of stored nectar to your colonies. Assess the weight and overall status of your honey supers and consider adding additional boxes. The urge to swarm should have subsided, but ensure ventilation in the hive does not encourage them to do anything silly. The heat in June and July can lead to poorly timed exits from hives craving less heat. You may see bees bearding and fanning the entrance to keep cool. Look for additional ventilation options such as screened inner covers and vented boxes for better air flow
Weekly inspections are a must in June, checking for prime conditions and searching for unwanted visitors. Assess SHB traps, rebait and refill as needed. Many Virginia beekeepers harvest honey in June. Plan on removing supers filled with honey. Be cautious with removing fresh package-sourced colonies honey on their first year, they typically need much of that for winter as they have been spending a good deal of energy on comb production rather than gathering nectar. Provide supplemental water options for your colony within 200 feet of the hive.
If you have large production hives, or you did not split in the fall, the second time to split is typically after the first honey flow. Ensure proper equipment and resources are available. Read up on the use of resource colonies and think about splitting your larger colonies for better sustainability. If you want to shorten your production time due to queen rearing for splits, think about ordering queens for a July pick up.
JULY in VIRGINIA
Oh the humidity. Bearding is common in July and even possible in the later hours of the evening. While hives have been known to swarm in July (not great timing and usually due to management errors), the dangers of swarming usually diminish by the end of the month. What increases, however, is the varroa load inside the colony. Prepare for treatments and checks in the next coming months.
The bees will continue to provide cooling for the hive in the way of fanning, bearding, and
water droplet use. Continue your weekly inspections with the goals of checking for queen health (evidenced by brood pattern), ventilation, and food storage. The population of the hive will begin to decrease by about 25% of its peak.
If you removed supers of honey for extrication, consider returning those frames to the yard to be cleaned up. July is typically the time for splitting hives and placing new queens in nucs. Once your supers have been cleaned off from the bees, think about removing unneeded boxes and storing them in a safe place free of wax months (PDB crystals can be used if that is within your philosophy).
Wether splitting or not, it is time to start gathering supplies for feeding and varroa treatment. With the removal of the honey supers taken for harvest, the options for treatment change. Pay careful attention to the temperature limitations of various treatment options.
AUGUST in VIRGINIA
With the swarming concerns a distant memory it is now time to focus on preparing for winter. The hive will begin to slow its brood rearing and the drones will find themselves with a few less ladies eager to feed them. A derth if often reported in august so feeding may be needed if the bees have less than approximately 10lbs of honey available at all times.
Assess food stores and provide feeding as needed. Check out your queen. She should still be laying in tight clusters but may start to show signs of failure if over a few years old. There is an uptick in opportunistic predators lurking around so think about wasp traps and robbing screens to protect the hive's assets.
If you have placed swarm traps for over the summer, best to get them out of the winter and put away for the cold months. Swarms are unlikely this late in the year, and catching one with a chance of it surviving the winter this far behind schedule is minimal. Place robbing screens and continue to monitor for SHB and varroa. Think about combining weak colonies and requeening now so you don't find yourself with losses coming out of winter.
Think Winter. How are you going to maintain ventilation in the hives over winter? Do you need to build wind breaks or purchase hive wraps? Take a running tally of your entrance reducers, which may have been taken off and misplaced in the heat of the summer. Take a class on overwintering bees and get ready to start feeding like crazy.
SEPTEMBER in VIRGINIA
See ya, boys. The drone numbers should start to dwindle. The colony will stop expending resources into feeding these guys. The bee population continues to drop and the mite populations continue to rise (unless treated in august). There have been frosts recorded in September frequently so start ensuring you and the colony are ready for winter.
Hive inspections can be less frequent now; between 2 and 3 weeks apart. the brood nest has shrunk and the queen is only laying a few hundred eggs a day. Look at food stores and consider feeding if you have not done already. Assess for varroa. If you have not treated back in august now is the time to treat. You want mite levels low as the colony begins to grow the "winter bees"
Feed winter syrup (2:1) and pollen substitutes. It is a good idea to look at nosema prophylaxis this time of year; whether that is essential oils or Fumagillin. TREAT YOUR BEES for mites. Ensure you have a complement of equipment for overwintering. Place your entrance reducers back on the hive if not yet done.
If you have not yet attended an overwintering class, look to see if one is offered; or go to your local bee club and search out a mentor.
OCTOBER in VIRGINIA
Everything slows down starting in October and winter preparations within the colony are in full swing. By this point, splits are made, mites are down, and the colonies are getting ready to bundle up. Cold temperatures creep out of the overnight hours and start to stick around thought the days, slowing down activity.
Not much inspections need to happen at this stage of the game. Take a last peek at your girls from the inside and install a mouse guard. If you are using screened bottom boards, read up on the pros and cons of closing them up and choose what you'll do for your hives. Drones are usually gone by this time of the year but some smart ones may have been able to hide from the girls who usually kick them to the curb. Propolis production will begin to ramp up, sealing the hive shut so consider minimizing its integrity.
Mouse guards should be placed (after ensuring no mice are inside yet) and entrance reducers are in the smallest setting. If you have any weak colonies still that have yet to be combined do so now. Adjust your screened bottom boards if you want to, remove any syrup from the hive tops or internal feeders. Melt down any beeswax and render it for sale and gifts.
Colony life is slowing down but attention should be turned toward learning and preparing for next year. Continue to look for classes and conferences. All overwintering supplies (wraps, wind breaks, ventilation boxes etc) should be at the ready if not yet in place. Read up on how to make candy boards or homemade bee fondant for emergency feed overwinter.
NOVEMBER in VIRGINIA
Begin extensive plans to distract your family from the fact that this is going to repeat itself next year.
Sit on those hands and stay out of the hives. The propolis envelop has been established and temperatures are low enough that the risks of subjecting the colony to the elements outweighs anything you'll do to fix an issue in November.
Keep the hive closed for winter. Your ventilation boxes and insulation boards, wraps etc should be in place. ratchet the hives down for the winter if you don't do so throughout the season (a good suggestion to keep them safe from prying raccoon claws).
Complete any overwintering activities now. Make fondant, or candy boards and place them in the hive. Increase your bee library and read up on what you can do to improve your bee yard next year. Subscribe to a blog (LIKE THIS ONE) or listen to podcasts. Keep the gears turning over winter. Most importantly, Sit down, enjoy a beverage of your choosing. Begin extensive plans to distract your family from the fact that this is going to repeat itself next year. If snow begins to fall, keep it away from your entrances.
start to plan out your bee yards for next year. Search for hive hosts, learn to do woodworking and start thinking about compiling lists of equipment needed for next year.
DECEMBER in VIRGINIA
The bees are all nestled all snug in their cluster. While visions of sugar kept them strong, how they muster. The queen in the center, with a firm fondant cap and the colony is settled for a long winter's nap.
Keep entrances clear. Any assessment will need to be done from the outside. Think about a dermal camera (they make them for smart phones for a few hundred dollars) or a stethoscope (remembers that quiet bees aren't always bad)
Building supplies for next year should start. Think about that Christmas list and ask friends and family for gift cards, classes, or equipment.
Organize your shop, honey house, or basement. Build boxes, assemble frames, and rest up, because next year is right around the corner.
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