Ready, Steady … Wait

Since you are reading an internet beekeeping site you are probably aware of the discussion fora like Beesource, BBKA, the Beekeeping Forum and Beemaster Forum.

Several of these have a section for beginners. The idea is that the beginner posts a simple beekeeping question and, hey presto, gets a helpful answer.

Of course, the reality is somewhat different 😉

The question might seem simple (“Should I start colony inspections this week?”), but the answers might well not be.

If there’s more than one answer they will, of course, be contradictory. The standard rule applies …

Opinions expressed = n + 1 (where n is the number of respondents 1)

… but these opinions will be interspersed with petty squabbles, rhetorical questions in return, veiled threats, comments about climate or location, blatant trolling and a long discourse on the benefits of native black bees/Buckfast/Carniolans or Osmia bicornis 2

Finally the thread will peter out and the respondents move to another question … “When should I put the first super on my hive?”

Climate and weather

Although it might not seem helpful at the time, the comment about climate and location refers to an important aspect of beekeeping often overlooked by beginners 3.

Climate and weather are related by time. Weather refers to the short term atmospheric conditions, whereas climate is the average of that weather.

Climate is what you expect, weather is what you get.

Climate and weather have a profound influence on our beekeeping.

We live on a small island bathed in warm water originating from the Gulf Stream. In addition, we are adjacent to a large land mass. The continent and the sea influence both our weather and climate.

For simplicity I’m going to only consider temperature and rainfall. The former influences the flowering period of plants and trees upon which the bees forage.

Mean annual temperature average 1981-2010

Mean annual temperature average 1981-2010

Both temperature and rainfall determine whether the bees can forage – if it’s too cold or wet they stay in the hive.

And adverse weather (strong winds, heavy rain) can make inspections an unpleasant experience for the bees … and the beekeeper 4.

Mean annual average rainfall 1981-2010

Mean annual average rainfall 1981-2010

The North – South divide (and the East – West divide)

Compare the mean temperature in Fife (marked with the red star) with Plymouth (blue star). The average annual temperature is 8-9°C in Fife and 10-11°C in Plymouth. Although this seems to be a very minor temperature difference it makes a huge difference to the beekeeping season 5.

As I write this (mid-April) I’ve yet to fully inspect a hive but colonies are swarming in the south of England, and have been for at least a week.

When I lived in the Midlands I would often start queen rearing in mid/late April 6 whereas here inspections might not begin until May in some years.

The 6° of latitude difference between Plymouth and Fife (~415 miles) is probably equivalent to 3-4 weeks in beekeeping terms.

In contrast to the oft-quoted view that ‘Scotland is wet’, Fife only gets about 66% of the rainfall of Plymouth (800-1000 mm for Fife vs. 1250-1500 mm for Plymouth).

However, there is an East – West divide for rainfall in parts of the country. I’m writing this in Ardnamurchan, the most westerly point of mainland Britain (yellow arrow), where we get about three times the annual rainfall as the arid East coast of Fife.

The rhythm of the seasons

The seasonal duties of the beekeeper are dependent on the weather and the climate. This is because the development of the colony is influenced by how early and how warm the Spring was, how many good foraging days there were in summer, the availability of sunny 20°C days for queen mating and the warmth of the autumn for late brood rearing.

And a host of other weather-related things.

All of which vary depending where your bees live.

And vary from year to year.

Which is why it’s impossible to answer the apparently simple question When should I put the first super on my hive?” using a calendar.

“Beekeeping by numbers (or dates)” doesn’t work.

You have to learn the rhythm of the seasons.

Make a note of when early pollen (snowdrop, crocus, hazel, willow) becomes available, when the OSR and rosebay willowherb flowers and when migratory birds return 7. The obvious ones to record are flowers or trees that generate most honey for you, but early- and late-season cues are also useful.

Most useful are the seasonal occurrences that precede key events in the beekeeping year.

Link these together with the recent weather and the development of your colonies. By doing this you will begin to know what to expect and can prepare accordingly. 

If the OSR is just breaking bud 8 start piling the supers on. If cuckoos are first heard a month before the peak of the swarming period in your area make sure you prepare enough new frames for your preferred swarm control method.

And preparation is pretty-much all I’ve been doing so far this year … though I expect to conduct my first full inspections over the Easter weekend.

Degree days

While doing some background reading on climate when preparing this post I came across the concept of heating and cooling degree days. These are used by engineers involved in calculating the energy costs of heating or cooling buildings.

Heating degree days are a measure of how much (in degrees), and for how long (in days), the outside air temperature was below a certain level. 

Conversely, cooling degree days are a measure of how much (in degrees), and for how long (in days), the outside air temperature was above a certain level.

You can read lots more about degree days on the logically-named degreedays.net , which is where the definitions above originated.

From a beekeeping point of view you can use this sort of data to compare seasons or locations.

Most ‘degree days’ calculations use 15.5°C as the certain level in the definitions above. This isn’t particularly relevant to beekeeping (but is if you are heating a building). However, degreedays.net (which have a bee on their BizEE Software Ltd. logo 🙂 ) can generate custom degree day information for any location with suitable weather data and you can define the level above or below which the calculation is based.

For convenience I chose 10°C. Much lower than this and foraging is limited.

The North – South divide (again)

So, let’s return to swarms in Plymouth and the absence of inspections in Fife … how can we explain this if the average annual temperate is only a couple of degrees different?

Heating and cooling degree days for Plymouth and Fife, April 2018 to March 2019

Heating and cooling degree days for Plymouth and Fife, April 2018 to March 2019

Focus on the dashed lines for the moment. September to November (months 9, 10 and 11) were very similar for both Plymouth (blue) and Fife (red). After that – unsurprisingly – the Fife winter is both colder and longer. From December through to March the Plymouth line rises later, rises less far and falls faster. In Plymouth the winter is less cold, is shorter and – as far as the bees are concerned – the season starts about a month earlier 9.

2018 in Fife was an excellent year for honey. After a cold winter (and the Beast from the East) colonies built up well and I harvested record amounts (for me) of both spring honey (in early June) and summer honey (in late July/early August).

I’ve no idea what 2018 was like for honey yields in Plymouth, but the cooling degree days (solid lines) show that it was warmer earlier, hotter overall and that the season lasted perhaps a month longer (though this tells us nothing about forage availability).

Of course it’s the longer, hotter summers and cooler, shorter winters that – averaged out – mean the average annual temperature difference between Plymouth and Fife is only a couple of degrees Centigrade.

Good years and bad years

As far as honey is concerned the last two years in Fife have been, respectively, sublime and ridiculous.

2018 was great and 2017 was catastrophic.

How do these look when plotted?

The 2017 and 2018 beekeeping season in Fife.

The 2017 and 2018 beekeeping season in Fife.

The onset of summer (solid lines – the cooling degree days – months 4-6) and the preceding winter (dashed lines – the heating degree days – months 9-11) were similar – the lines are nearly superimposed.

The 2016-17 winter was milder and shorter than 2017-18. The latter was extended by arrival of the Beast from the East and Storm Emma which brought blizzards in late February and continued unseasonably cold through March.

However, the harsh 2017-18 winter didn’t hold the bees back and the 2018 season brought bumper honey harvests.

In contrast, the 2017 season was hopeless. It was cooler overall, but the duration of the season was similar to the following year 10. Supers remained resolutely empty and my entire honey crop shared a single batch number 🙁

However, it wasn’t the temperature that was the main problem. It was the abnormally high rainfall during June.

June 2017 rainfall anomaly from 1981-2010

June 2017 rainfall anomaly from 1981-2010 …

Colonies were unable to forage. Some needed feeding. Queen mating was very patchy, with several turning out as drone laying queens later in the season.

Early June 2017 ...

Early June 2017 …

The spring nectar flows were a washout and the colonies weren’t at full strength to exploit the July flows.

Let’s see what 2019 brings …


 

Footnotes

  1. Remembering also that the respondent who expressed two opinions will also have contradicted themselves … and others.
  2. I omitted the SBAi discussion forum from the list at the top of the page as it is rarely acrimonious, generally excellent and fabulously well-moderated :-)
  3. Or, for that matter, many respondents to questions on the internet.
  4. Unless the colonies are kept in a bee shed.
  5. I’ll return to this at the end of the post …
  6. And in one memorable year even earlier when I had mated queens by the first couple of days of May.
  7. I saw my first house martins on 17th April this year.
  8. And remember that strain variation and time of planting also determines when this happens – overwintered rape flowers before spring-sown.
  9. Colonies in my bee shed develop earlier in the season than those outside in the same apiary and brood rearing continues later into the autumn.
  10. Compare the solid lines in months 6-9.

22 thoughts on “Ready, Steady … Wait

  1. Sandy

    Ok the long discourse on the benefits of native black bees/Buckfast/Carniolans bit made me snort my coffee
    Thanks for the website and the good sense information for the chilly east coast

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      I’ve been meaning to write about some of the beekeeping discussion forums but might need to cancel my accounts before doing so 😉 There’s lots of great material there (for an amusing post or entertaining talk to liven up a BKA AGM perhaps) interspersed with a small amount of really insightful observation and advice.
      Cheers
      David

      Reply
      1. Emily

        Nowadays I only post on some of the ‘friendlier’ forums – like Beekeeping Beginners and Mentors or Women in Beekeeping UK on Facebook. You get noticeably fewer sarcastic and bullying type comments on these. I do think people take into account your profile picture when they reply in some forums and if you look vaguely young or just not like them will assume you need correcting, as only their way of doing things is the right way!

        Reply
        1. David Post author

          Vaguely young? I wish 😉

          Some of the comments on the more leniently moderated forums are unpleasant and unnecessary. I do wonder how many beginners look in, browse a few threads and then are scared off, never to return? I don’t really use Facebook as my internet connection is too slow to make it bearable … posts from here are ‘announced’ on Facebook and Twitter. Both generate a significant proportion of visits, but I rarely have time to follow up on comments left there rather than here.

          Cheers
          David

          Reply
  2. David Bolton

    This is most interesting and I look forward to generating charts for my location here in the west of N Ireland. A key landmark date for me is the arrival of the swallows – bang on time yesterday 18th April (2019). Thank you.

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hello David
      Any charts only provide a retrospective view of the season … and, by then, you’ll probably know whether it was a good one or not 🙂 The flowering and the migrants help predictively. I usually take more notice of native plants. OSR varieties certainly seem to vary. The advice you sometimes read to start inspections when ornamental flowering currant blooms is about 2 months too early for the variety planted by the local council in St Andrews – they regularly flower in late February.
      It’s always good to see the swallows and swifts return … I expect the latter on the 7-10th of May.
      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  3. Emily

    That rain down the west is the reason one of my poor colonies ended up with a pool of water inside! But then yesterday people were walking around in shorts in Cornwall and I went to the extreme of daring to go out without my coat. I need to get a spreadsheet together to start recording flowering times properly.

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      All my hives have OMF’s but I still sometimes see water accumulating in the Varroa tray if the wind drives it in through the entrance. I presume yours must have a solid floor? If you tip the hive forward slightly it should just run back out again.

      I’ve lost one colony this winter due to drowning … the lid blew off before a 3 day deluge when I was somewhere else altogether. They limped on for a few weeks, but I suspect the queen was a goner and they didn’t make it. No amount of drainage would have helped them … the upturned lid (a deep poly Abelo) was more than half full of water when I returned to the hive 🙁

      Reply
      1. Emily

        Ah poor colony that you lost, that was unlucky timing. Mine are on open mesh floors but the water had somehow got in above the crown board and pooled there, think a little gap had been caused by brace comb lifting the parts up slightly and I didn’t notice. Beekeeper error as usual!

        Reply
        1. David Post author

          Unlucky, but still my fault.
          Are you sure the water isn’t just condensation? I don’t understand how rain could get in above the crownboard. Isn’t this bit covered with the roof? My Abelo poly hives collect condensation in the space underneath the frame lugs. Mellifera Crofter on the SBAi forum pointed out that this was probably because the molded-in runners have no gaps at either end to let the water run out.
          This photo shows it in a box within the bee shed, so there’s no chance it’s rainwater …
          Condensation in an Abelo brood box
          I’ve also seen it on top of the crownboard, again in hives in the bee shed.
          It’s a pretty humid atmosphere in a hive.
          Cheers
          David

          Reply
          1. Emily

            This is a bit embarrassing- I had been inspecting the colony when a hail storm started. (We have a surprising number of days involving sun interpersed with hail in Cornwall!). In my haste to get the colony back together, the crown board went on the brood box, followed by the super, then the queen excluder and roof. And there was a slight crack where rain could get in – a lot more than in your pic. Beekeeper error.

  4. Bridget

    Here in the highlands where we rely on heather for our main crop we had very little heather honey 2018 but lots in 2017. The reason being I’ve been told is that the harsh frosts in April followed by hot dry May and June damaged the heather. The flowering was over very quickly. However we did get some good blossom honey in early July which was a bonus as we can’t rely on that.
    Re your response above to Emily, I put together some new Swienty polys this week and wondered why the plastic runners didn’t go right to the end and now I know it was intentional!

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      I remember the heather being good in 2017 but I didn’t know about how the weather influences it. I’ve got none in reasonable range and prefer blossom honey anyway. My definition of reasonable is based upon time spent driving to the glens vs. time spent actually beekeeping, taking into account the ‘time’ is usually in limiting supply 😉
      Heather will be more-or-less on the doorstep on the west coast but the moors there aren’t managed for shooting and I’m not sure how well it blooms. Time will tell.
      I don’t think the condensation accumulating in the lug wells is a problem but the push-in Swienty runners leave a gap of a few millimetres which presumably explains why I don’t see it in those boxes.
      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  5. Calum

    Hi David,
    somewhere there is a calender for beekeeping based on what is currently flowering (first opening of the colony only after the wild cherry blooms,,,) -one day I will find it. It is probalby the best measure to go by.
    Also I had a moment of clarity, all bee keeping arguments are based on our phallasy regarding how we breath, which is completely incorrect. But its a bit of a longer story. We would need to actually talk to each other for me to explain it..

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Calum
      The ‘currently flowering’ has to be of native/wild plants. The crops are highly variable in their flowering time as farmers seem to change the sowing time or the strain sown.
      Your moment of clarity sounds interesting!
      Not something I’ve managed recently 😉
      Cheers
      David

      Reply
      1. Calum

        Hi
        yes the calendar is based on non crop plants. Snowdrop, Christmas rose /black hellebore Hazel, Willow, Cherry, apple, pear, dandelion, alder i suppose would be the first plants I would add to a calendar..
        Re breathing, our general assumption is that we only breath in and out, which is quite untrue. But this clouds our mindset in a fairly terrible way as we assume binary responses, yes no, correct wrong in most decision making.
        In truth we breath in, there is a short pause, we breath out, followed by another short pause. If we review an answer to every decision in this light, life becomes much more interesting, and discussions less devisive- as there is no longer right and wrong. So something like a divisive statement Christian or Muslim and become Christian/muslim/religious/ non religious. Generally making it easier for reasonable minded people to get along. The same applies to every beekeeping argument. there are few wrong solutions (also because bees can survive quite a bit of bad beekeeping) than beekeepers like to argue. And as you point out you have to consider, the bees, the climate, the micro climate, the forage and the weather in every decision, so a discussion around a binary solution is rather futile if you try to think like you breathe….
        It is possibly easier to explain than write, but I hope you get the jist of it..
        BR
        calum

        Reply
        1. David Post author

          Hi Calum
          I do get the gist of it …
          In another life I write lots of Perl code for analysis of bioinformatics data. Perl is a simple scripting language that can be used in a myriad of different ways to achieve a particular goal. The right way to use it depends upon what you want to do and – almost always – There’s More Than One Way To Do It … which is the perl programming motto. Beekeeping is the same. Take swarm control. There’s no right way to achieve it, but there are multiple ways by which is can be done successfully. Some are a little easier, some use less equipment, some offer more flexibility, some keep the colony together, some reduce lifting, some are visually appealing etc.
          Of course, there are some wrong ways as well (repeatedly just knocking off queen cells for example) but it’s amazing what the bees can cope with.
          I set up a vertical split last week … entirely the wrong way round. What a muppet! I only realised 8 days later after I’d reversed the colony. I checked them tonight. There are QC’s where I expect them but the queenless box (which by now should have been less busy) was packed tight with bees. Even though I did something dumb the bees carried on regardless. Realising I’ve made a mistake I’ve taken remedial action to prevent them swarming. Very bad beekeeping, but not the end of the world.
          The discussion forums are busy with people who think their way of doing something is probably the best way. Often without consideration of all of the things you list (climate, forage, weather etc.) or of the experience or longer-term plans of the person asking the question. They are undoubtedly useful, but there should be a warning when you create a new account that There’s More Than One Way To Do It 😉
          Cheers
          David

          PS I meant to add … I was looking at a paper today on willow flowering trying to decide what to plant. Different species flower over about a two month period. The earliest flower too early to be much use to the bees up here. I’m going to explore this in more detail as I have a large area to plant with native trees.

          Reply
          1. Calum

            Hi David,
            I just look for the types that the bees are humming most loudly in and take cuttings.. 🙂 Hazel too!
            Its not native but Salix udensis -we call it “dragon willow” is very very good for copious amounts of pollen. And it looks very good to boot.
            Rowan for the birds, and apples for the beekeeper. I’d love a really big spot to plan, want to do a edible bee garden… someday..
            BR
            Calum

          2. David Post author

            Hi Calum
            I’ve already planted small amounts of rowan and have found a couple of good hazel trees that I’ll try taking cuttings from in the autumn. I’ll also buy bare-rooted trees this winter as that will save a year or two. However, I’m going to stick with natives if possible (though Salix udensis does look good, and also appears to be called S. sachalinensis here). I’ve still got a lot of land to prepare first.
            I’m thinking that your edible bee garden is a garden in which the plants are edible, not the bees.
            Cheers
            David

  6. Bridget Clyde

    Re the early willow don’t discount it. My nearest neighbour has an enormous very early willow, out well before anything else up here. A couple of years ago on a fine march day I could see streams of bees heading east. I walked up through the woods in the direction I thought they were going, came to the neighbours garden where there was this really
    I later identified as a willow, though not weeping wilkow, and in the blue sky above I could see hundreds of flying dots on the pollen. Even if only for a day or two it must be a great boost in early spring. My other willows are probably nearly a month later with their pollen. My bees will fly in temps as low as 4 degrees if it’s calm and sunny.
    Bridget

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Thanks Bridget
      That’s good to know. I’ve noticed one or two early trees here getting attention from the bumble bees so I’ll take some cuttings late this year. It’s clear I need to work harder on my deer deterrents … a few of the tree seedlings (oak and rowan) I found and transplanted a fortnight ago have now been found by the deer, with inevitable consequences 🙁
      Best Wishes
      David

      Reply

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