Summer management is arguably the most pleasant part of the beekeeping year. The hives have been treated for mites, and are all queenright, thanks to your attentive early spring management. You are watching the weather, deciding when to put your honey supers, which are all stacked and ready to go, on the burgeoning hives. Your queens, swimming in the maple, dandelion and hawthorn nectars their workers are busy bringing in, are laying at ferocious rate, and there are sheets of brood in the hive. Afternoon orientation flights, of thousands of bees ready to become foragers, are a stunning and almost frightening spectacle.
You are inspecting the hives regularly to ensure queen cells are not being put up, but your swarm control measures are in place, so you are feeling pretty confident. Just in case, you have a swarm bob in place in the apiary, and bait hives set up.
You are also checking the colonies carefully for signs of disease, particularly the foulbroods, watching to be sure your uncapped bee larvae are white and glistening, swimming on beds of nutrients. At this time of year, the pollination hives arrive in nearby fields, and pollination hives can be a real worry. They may come from a big apiary that uses prophylactic medication protocols to suppress foulbrood, which then blooms in the hives when they are left in the fields untended and unmedicated. Bees from these hives easily drift to nearby apiaries and can infect your colonies.
In hives experiencing Varroa stress, bees may be looking for better places to live. This may be a parasite effect, where infection with Varroa pushes the bees to drift more than they usually would, carrying their little passengers to new and fresh fields in other, perhaps our, hives. So we’ll be looking at any drone brood we break apart as boxes are separated (drone brood is often in ladder/bridge comb) to see if they are infested with mites. It is an inaccurate method of Varroa counting, but if you see no Varroa at all, you can be forgiven for relaxing a bit.
But remember, Varroa can vector AFB and EFB as well as a host of viruses. Be alert to those conditions infecting your bees.
Pollen should be coming into the hives in quantity, and observing the field bees as they return should be a standard part of your colony management. Pollen should be coming in on foragers at a regular, easily observable rate in any queenright hive with brood. Be suspicious of hives that are quiet at the door, or who are not bringing in pollen.
The honey hives begin to get very large (assuming you have managed them for the honey flow) and inspecting them becomes an increasingly daunting task. That is one good reason to make some bee friends, so you can inspect together. Two sets of eyes and brains makes for a more thorough and well thought out inspection.
As you inspect, ask yourself the following questions:
~are there eggs in the hive? if there are, the queen is there somewhere…are there as many eggs as I think there should be?
~is the open brood chubby, pearly white and wet looking = healthy?? do any of the larvae look funny or off??
~are the workers pretty calm, and going about their business? or are they snarky or skittish?
~does the queen have room to lay?…are there open, polished cells for her in the brood nest? if not, rearrange some frames to bring empty comb into the brood nest, replace deep frames full of honey with drawn comb or waxed foundation…give HRH somewhere to lay. You can add another deep box and put the full frames of nectar/honey up there to be cured and capped. Or give them to a weak hive.
Local Nectar Flow
Each biozone has its unique nectar flow (also called the honey flow) profile. Most bee clubs publish a yearly calendar in which the local nectar flows are documented for local new-bees. Posting on local forums can be informative as well.
In our area, the Lower Mainland of coastal British Columbia, indeed most of the coastal Pacific Northwest, our main nectar flow is from the blackberry bloom. We get a spring flow of variable strength from the willows, Big Leaf Maple, hawthorn, wild roses and dandelions. But the make-or-break flow is blackberry, which typically comes in mid to late June, but in the last two warm years has started in the last week of May, first week of June. And more importantly, has been in those warm, drought years a brief and “dry” flow. When the ground is really dry, there is low nectar production.
And low nectar means little honey. And lots of competition from colonies in our flight range (which in poor flow years is much bigger than usual, as hungry bees range far and wide in search of scant resources), and from all the other pollinators and nectar gatherers.
Once the blackberry ends, we do get some late summer flow from fireweed and purple loosestrife, Japanese knotweed and the field asters. Many beekeepers move their colonies up into the mountains to catch the later flows of fireweed. Urban beekeepers get a bit of help from mature, flower filled and watered urban gardens, particularly if they are planted with catmint, borage, dill, rosemary, mints, lavenders, Rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus), asters, rudbeckias, sunflowers, clovers and coneflowers.
Do not feed the bees sugar syrup during the time the honey supers are on the hive! And while the honey supers are on, do not apply medications or pest remedies, essential oils, or anything else that will end up adulterating your raw, natural, wildflower honey.
It is worth noting that the term organic honey can only be applied to honey gathered by bees who have no non-organic forage sources within 5 miles of their hive. Thus, truly organic honey is a vanishingly rare commodity!
Honey production is maximized in very strong colonies, colonies at peak population. Because a colony always needs a fixed core of bees to stay home and keep the queen and brood warmed, cleaned and fed, only large hives can spare a meaningful forager force (which in turn supports more brood rearing…it is hard for small colonies to expand simply because they can’t easily spare workers for foraging…small colonies should be given nutritional support until they can feed themselves well).
So our spring management kept in mind that we needed the queen laying at peak rate two months in advance of the nectar flow. In that two months, maximum numbers of the all important foragers, who are a minimum of 42 days from the egg, are laid and reared. When the honey flow hits, you need a full complement of foragers…both the oldest foragers (who will have been a forager for 2-3 weeks), and the brand new foragers. And all the foragers in between! More foragers = more honey.
In addition, Rev. Grant Gillard in his endearing book A Ton of Honey, tells us that our nice big hive will gather more nectar if we add, in a week or two before the flow, supers of drawn comb. The pheromone in the old, empty comb pushes the bees to increase nectar foraging rates. He also advises to manipulate the honey frames to ensure full frames are moved to the outside of the box, and pulled when capped, pushing the bees to complete the less full frames by placing them in the middle of the box, where it is warmest and bees prefer to work. Keep providing them lots of honey room until the flow is over.
Remember too that the bees require not just the amount of space you expect the final honey crop to occupy, but nectar curing space. They need upwards of twice the empty comb space to spread the nectar out as it dries and is moved again and again into cells of increasingly mature honey.
The day finally arrives when the flow is over and it is time to harvest.
You can pull the honey boxes off the hive, and then brush each frame free of bees with a bee brush. This is hot, tiring work, with the bees becoming increasingly testy. You can help by brushing with the frames held upside down.
You can also use a clearer board, which goes over the broodnest and under the honey supers, and the upper entrance, if you have one, is closed off. It is simply an inner cover with a bee escape in the centre: bees come down from the honey supers to go foraging or to cluster at night and cannot find their way back…well, most of them can’t. A few will still be up there. But it greatly reduces the labour of getting the honey boxes off the hive, free of bees.
You can keep the stacked honey supers between two inner covers (one upside down on the bottom, one on the top), being careful to leave no cracks or openings for bees to find!
And then it is away to the honey house (or kitchen, or garage). For small apiaries of 1-5 hives, you can harvest your honey by using the crush and strain method.
Once you get a bit larger, you will be thinking of buying an extractor, an uncapping device, honey buckets fitted with honey gates and filters, pitchers for pouring honey, jars, lids. You can spend as much or as little as can be imagined!
Processing is a big job. A big, sticky job! But everyone loves to get jars of your own honey, and you may be depending on the sale of the honey to underwrite your beekeeping costs.
It is worth mentioning again that bees will forage more if you place honey supers on the hive at least baited with, but preferably filled with, drawn comb.
As a honey super fills and another is required, put the new, empty super UNDER the nearly full one (undersupering, nadiring). The scent of the filled super will tempt the bees up to the new one, particularly important if you have no drawn comb, only heavily waxed, or heaven forfend, unwaxed foundation.
You can also spray the new foundation lightly with a sugar or clean honey syrup to get the bees interested. Extra wax painted on new foundation will hasten the comb-drawing process.
The aim at all times is to tempt the bees up into the honey supers, and to provide them with ample room for nectar storage.
Honey that is truly honey, and completely cured down to 18% or less moisture content will keep indefinitely. But it will not stay liquid indefinitely! Depending on what floral nectars (and therefore, which sugars) compose the honey, crystallization will occur at some point…sometimes quickly, sometimes not for years.
But most honeys are going to start crystallizing in a few months:
Cool temperatures [below 50°F (10°C) are ideal for preventing crystallization. Moderate temperatures [50-70°F (10-21°C)] generally encourage crystallization. Warm temperatures [70-81°F (21-27°C)] discourage crystallization but degrade the honey. Very warm temperatures [81°F/27°C or more] prevent crystallization but encourage spoilage by fermentation as well as degrading the honey. (source http://www.honey.com)
To reclaim crystallized honey, just gently rewarm (usually in a warm water bath = bain marie or double boiler) the honey to make it liquid again.
To completely prevent crystallization, indefinitely, honey can be frozen! If you are saving capped combs of honey to give to hives in the late winter/early spring, or with which to make nucs at a later date, you can wrap them and keep them in the freezer. Then they can be thawed and placed in the hives.