Knowing honeybee activity by season is a prerequisite for every beekeeper from beginner to expert. It is important to know when honey can be harvested and when bees and the hive require more attention.
In September, flowers are starting to fade away and nectar becomes less abundant. This means, the bees have to adapt their breeding habits to the food situation. When food becomes less abundant, the brood is reduced and the population decreases. The number of the old bees gradually die and the young bees survive the winter. However, this also depends on the queen´s age and her ability to lay eggs. The bees use propolis collected from the buds of trees to repair their hive, and make the entrance smaller to protect the hive from the cold air. This particular time has a significant impact on the prosperity of the hive in the following year.
It is time for the bees to ´spring clean´ and repair the hive for the winter. Without fresh nectar at this time of the year, the bees need to be frugal with their stores. The workers evict the drones from the hive as they are superfluous. For the drones, whose only mission in life is to mate with the queen, this is a death sentence. They will starve to death.
As the temperature falls to about 57° F or 10°C, the bees need to keep the hive warm to make sure the new brood survives. To do this they huddle close together in form of a tight cluster. The bees vibrate their body, generating heat to keep the brood inside the cluster sufficiently warm (ca. 93° F/33°C).
The queen sometimes also stops her egg-laying duties during October and November, although this usually happens when the winter is very cold. In mild winters, or subtropical or tropical conditions, the queen continues to lay eggs and the workers rear the brood.
As the temperature gets colder, the bees huddle more closely together to conserve heat. The bees on the outer layer press their bodies tightly against each other to insulate the bees within the cluster from the cold. This mechanism allows the bees to expand or contract the cluster according to a rise and fall in temperature. As it gets colder, they huddle together even tighter, making the cluster appear smaller. When it gets warmer, they can move away from each other a bit, which makes the cluster look bigger.
The bees inside the cluster have access to the combs with the stored honey. When there is no more honey the entire cluster moves to a new honeycomb. However, if the cold temperature lasts for a long time, the bees may not be able to move the cluster, meaning they will starve even though the food is within eyesight.
The queen always remains in the cluster. If the colony has a well supplied food store, the workers start to feed the queen to stimulate her to lay eggs. In the northern hemisphere this is usually during late December or early January. This ensures that the new brood replaces those that have not survived the winter. The number of bees in the early brood depends on the amount of pollen stored during the previous autumn.
Colonies with little pollen reserves delay rearing their brood until the foragers can collect fresh pollen from the first spring flowers. These are usually the smaller colonies which emerge in the spring. Usually, the number of bees in the hive always drop in the winter because the old bees continue to die. Colonies with large honey and pollen storage that produced a large brood in autumn generally have a bigger population in spring.
In early spring, when the days are getting longer and the first flower appear, the bees start to rear the brood. To prepare for the brood, they gather water to liquefy honey that granulated or became thick during the winter and to regulate the temperature. There are usually no drones in spring and if, there are only a few.
As more food sources become available in spring, the number of bees within the colony grows rapidly with the hatching of the new brood. This increase also means that the number of workers also increases as the brood needs to be maintained. The foragers sometimes collect more nectar and pollen than they need in later spring, resulting in a surplus of honey and pollen.
As the temperature starts to rise and the days become longer, the cluster expands even more. This is the prompt to produce drones. However, as the brood rearing activity increases and the number of adult bees within the hive, it soon becomes crowded. Beekeepers usually notice more bees at the entrance of the hive. The bees crawl out from the hive and hang around the entrance in a cluster, a typical sign that the hive is overcrowded.
Despite the crowded conditions, the queen starts to lay more drone eggs in preparation for the natural division of the colony. This is done by swarming. At this time the workers also prepare to rear a new queen. Workers feed royal jelly to a few larvae that are laid in larger cells. How many potential queens are raised depends on the individual colony but also on the race and strain of the bee.
The preparation to swarm is often confused with bearding, another natural occurrence in the summer. Bearding is when the bees gather outside the hive, forming a cluster that looks like a beard. It happens when the temperature or humidity inside the hive gets too high , overcrowding, insufficient ventilation, or a combination of these conditions. However, there are differences. Swarming generally occurs mid morning to mid afternoon in mid to late spring, whereas bearding usually happens later in the afternoon in mid to late summer.
The colony will try to build new combs, expanding the hive providing there is sufficient food and space no matter how crowded the hive has become. The new combs are usually used to store honey, while the older combs serve as pollen storage and to rear the brood.