April 07, 2022
Spring always seems to take its time to truly arrive, with March and April fluctuating temperatures and snow stubbornly sticking around... or even replenishing from time to time. What we may not immediately notice, but the honeybee is acutely aware of, are the ever growing minutes of precious daylight.
After the winter solstice (the shortest day of the year), the amount of daylight begins to increase due to our planet's polar alignment and its changing location with respect to the sun. First merely a trickle of seconds, weeks later becoming entire minutes, the honey bee colony gradually shifts its behaviour toward preparing for the very buzzy business of spring.
Bees don’t hibernate, or sleep, or go truly dormant in the winter. They wait, they move along the frames of stored honey either transporting resources, or migrating as a cluster to new sections in the hive for easier access to food and pollen. Where they are situated in the colony is dependent on where the queen has been laying her eggs. Even in the dark winter months, the queen may lay a small amount, and this binds the cluster to that location.
There is a period of time where no eggs are laid, but the moment the days begin to grow longer, the impulse fires to get the population speeding toward growth. This becomes a fascinating race between time, weather, and resources. As the calendar approaches spring, the brood rearing of new bees must increase. This isn’t contigent on the weather so much as the increase of available daily light.
Each individual bee laid, hatched, nursed and then capped in its assigned honeycomb cell requires an equal cell of honey/pollen to bring it to hatching. This is a process that, once initiated, will not be bound by the amount of resources the colony currently has in its reserves. If they run short, everybody dies.
An early spring is a blessing as it brings the first blooms for foraging, which helps increase the odds of survival. The presence of incoming fresh pollen is a major stimulant for the queen, and egg laying transitions into a higher gear. As long as the weather holds for the foragers to fly, the colony has successfully wintered and will have a strong jumpstart on the upcoming season.
If spring is delayed however, the winter bees are at the end of their life cycle and need to be replaced in numbers great enough to ensure population sustainability. A dwindling population may not be able to nurse, raise and cap the "bees to be" in their cells and the colony can spiral into extinction.
Enter the beekeeper! In the spring we keep close watch on how the bees are doing, and will intervene if we can to provide the help needed to make it through to those first blooms. Wintering outdoors, we have already wrapped the hives in insulated wraps and black plastic to help retain warmth and collect a little extra solar energy. We also hang onto surplus frames of honey and pollen from fall, so on a rare sunny and mild day with temps high enough above zero, we can pop in one or two fresh frames to supplement the colonies that are running low.
Balsam Poplar (March-April)
Although not a great nectar source it provides some of the first pollen in the spring the bees can forage, so has an important role to play.
Again, not great for nectar but a decent pollen source for the bees!
Red Maple (April-May)
Enough nectar to make it pay for the trip and then some, and significant pollen too!
In late April and early May, we get into the season of the mighty dandelion (genus Taraxacum), and that’s where you truly know with confidence that the bees are going to be alright!
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