Minding Your Bees and Cues

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Minding Your Bees and Cues

Nature’s Timing
By: Becky Masterman & Bridget Mendel

Phenology is the scientific study of when things happen. When fruit trees bloom, when drones first appear in the colony, when basswood or black locust nectar flows start, when bees begin to swarm. By tracking these external and internal events each year, patterns—and deviations from patterns—in the timing of these natural phenomena can be observed.

A strong build of colony populations in late Winter (February 26th, 2024) in Minnesota means that colonies need to be given both space and possibly supplemental feed to accommodate for the growing population and wait for the nectar to start replenishing depleted Winter honey stores. Photo credit: Rebecca Masterman

A visit to our bees on an unseasonably warm February day in Minnesota got us thinking about what to do when the typical phenology of a place is completely out of whack. This year, colony populations and developing bees aren’t following regular seasonal protocols. We’ve got March boasting May temps, early drones and colonies bursting with new bees. Willows and maple trees appear to be decked out in early buds, too. But will they persist, or be dashed by Spring freezes and snow? No matter what, beekeeping management will require deviating from habit this year. Beekeepers will rely more than ever on mentors and other beekeeper friends to compare notes or ask for the wisdom of old-timers.

Our text-a-friend help came from commercial beekeeper Dan Whitney of Whitney Lonestar Queen Co. (https://whitneylonestarqueenco.com/). Dan thought that an early, strong population would be an opportunity to use the Demaree method of swarm prevention. This method can also be used to split colonies while providing the beekeeper with a little more time to make the divide.

Effective, but not necessarily easy, the Demaree method is worth exploring. Using queen excluders, you keep the queen, a few frames of sealed brood, some empty comb and resources in a brood box below a couple of honey supers. You add another queen excluder above the honey supers and move the rest of the brood and bees to the top. The bees in the top box will eventually raise queen cells which you can either knock down or use those bees and queen cells to make a divide. We have simplified this method here but encourage you to check out Steve Donohoe’s website. Steve is the author of Interviews with Beekeepers and Healthy Bees, Heavy Hives. His website has Demaree method details along with the pros and cons of this practice (https://thewalrusandthehoneybee.com/demaree/).

Whether trying out the Demaree method or waiting until weather and flying drones are more consistent, give your colonies space and make sure that colonies do not run out of food. One bright side of early population growth is that if you end up with three deeps or more of brood, you can consider making more than one split from a colony.

Early presence of drones spotted in Minnesota colonies on March 3rd, 2024. These two photos were taken from the same colony where drone brood and drones were spotted. The queen (left) was laying worker brood on the frames and drone brood in the burr comb. Photo credit: Rebecca Masterman

When you ponder the impact of climate change on colony growth, honey plants and the persistent deadly parasite and vector named

Varroa destructor, a phenological approach to their relationships is key to understanding and responding to their impacts. As the climate continues to be weirder and weirder, we predict that honey bee phenological questions will be a big topic of research and discussion in the beekeeper community. To start the conversation, here are some ice breakers (or should we say ice melters) about research that’s been done so far on the topic:

A study published by Langowska et al. (2016) examined honey yield, rising temperatures and phenology exploring two data sets in Europe (Southern UK and Poland). The general trends revealed in this analysis described increasing honey yields and production over 40 years ending in 2010. They suggested that the Spring nectar and pollen flow stimulated colony growth and enabled the bees to take advantage of Summer nectar flows. Additionally, warmer temperatures could expand foraging seasons leading to additional nectar plant use. The study also predicted that copious Spring nectar flows might result in swarming increases.

  • Overall, U.S. honey production in a study of USDA data from 1939 to 1981 (Page et al., 1987) revealed positive U.S. honey production trends. But a look at the USDA NASS survey data from 1989 to 2022 shows a downward trend in honey production and yields. While some beekeepers in the U.S. might be able to identify geographic locations where yields and production are stronger, it is not the trend being discussed in the hallways of bee conferences. Updated studies in the U.S. and across the world would help us understand these complex trends.
  • One climate change concern is that pollination services will be threatened if bee populations do not match the needed timing of the blooms. A study by Nürnberger et al. (2019) used a reciprocal translocation experimental design (moving colonies to regions with different climates) that allowed them to investigate the impacts of temperature changes on colonies. Although they reported the resilience of honey bees to these shifts, they observed that colony brood phenology was highly sensitive to late Winter environmental conditions. When phenology was delayed by a shift to a cooler climate, the worker populations and honey stores were smaller. The bright side of this shift was a significant negative impact on varroa populations.
  • A study in Central Europe by Smoliński et al. (2021) examined the relationship between warmer Spring and Autumn temperatures and V. destructor infestations. They suggested that the higher mite populations were mitigated by climatic effects due to increased bee abundance and brood availability regulating mite abundance. While not surprising, it is important to update your mite management strategy to account for these ideal mite reproduction conditions.

All successful beekeepers eventually become obsessed with tracking the timing of things: they know which day marks the sun’s shortest path across the sky, and the shift then within their clustered colonies. They watch for the first blooms of trees in early Spring, and try to predict, based on record keeping of past year’s weather patterns, the important big Summer nectar flows. The definition of a successful beekeeper might just be a beekeeper who expects and adjusts to the unexpected, but when the conditions are record breaking*, maybe beekeepers need to put record effort into preparing for the extraordinary. Should we be tapping into and contributing to the USA Phenology Network (https://www.usanpn.org/)? Honey bees are one of the species on their list, but the data shared by beekeepers are limited. Are beekeepers ready for another citizen science project? We aren’t sure, but the conversations about the timing of beekeeping events are becoming a bit more urgent.

References and Resources
*8 U.S. states that experienced a record warm Winter in 2023-2024: (https://www.cnn.com/2024/03/08/weather/winter-warmth-record-climate/index.html)
Langowska A, Zawilak M, Sparks TH, Glazaczow A, Tomkins PW, Tryjanowski P. Long-term effect of temperature on honey yield and honey bee phenology. Int J Biometeorol. 2017 Jun;61(6):1125-1132. doi: 10.1007/s00484-016-1293-x. Epub 2016 Dec 24. PMID: 28013383; PMCID: PMC5486770.
Nürnberger F, Härtel S, Steffan-Dewenter I. Seasonal timing in honey bee colonies: phenology shifts affect honey stores and varroa infestation levels. Oecologia. 2019 Apr;189(4):1121-1131. doi: 10.1007/s00442-019-04377-1. Epub 2019 Mar 16. PMID: 30879141.
Page, R. Jr, Nash, E., Erickson, E. Jr, Baltimore, M. Use of honey yield data to assess damage to the beekeeping industry of the United States. Entomological Society of America, Bulletin of the Entomological Society of America, 1987, Vol.33 (3), p.190-194
Smoliński S, Langowska A, Glazaczow A. Raised seasonal temperatures reinforce autumn Varroa destructor infestation in honey bee colonies. Sci Rep. 2021 Nov 15;11(1):22256. doi: 10.1038/s41598-021-01369-1. PMID: 34782664; PMCID: PMC8593171.