Summer is a busy time for the bees. As a beekeeper, you may see the bees doing a variety of things that you're not used to - robbing, bearding, gathering water. I'm going to explain what all of these things are and what you can do, as a beekeeper, to help your bees. First, I just want to alleviate any concerns you may have because although the bees don't love it when it's over 100F out or when other bees are robbing them, this is very normal and something that happens every year. The bees have learned how to deal with these issues, for the most part, all on their own. As a beekeeper, there are some things you can do to help, but often beekeepers do too much and do more harm than good. So please don't try to solve all of your bees' problems for them. Trust that they have the equipment and knowledge needed to help themselves a lot of the time.
What the Beekeeper Does in the Summer Time
In the Summer time or whenever there are a lot of flowers blooming and the bees are busy bringing in nectar, the general beekeeping tasks you want to do are:
- prevent swarming
- test for mites (and treat if over 12)
- add empty honey supers as needed
If you're not sure if the bees are bringing in a lot of nectar, the ways you can tell are:
- You see festooning. This is when bees form a chain with their bodies and build honeycomb.
- There is an increase in population.
- Crowded entrances with a constant flow of bees coming and going.
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What bees do when its really hot out
When it gets hot out, and it's over 95F you will see the bees' behaviour change. You may see:
- a lot of bees at water sources
- bees at the entrances flapping their wings
- more aggressive demeanor
Let's break these down into what they mean and what you can do for each.
Just like how a beard is a lot of hairs gathered around one's mouth, bearding on a beehive is when there are a lot of bees gathered around the entrance to the hive.
Is bearding a problem? No. It often happens when it is really really hot out. The bees leave the hive to allow more space inside the hive for air to circulate. The bees will also beard in the evenings because the population is high and all of the bees are home. When it gets crowded in the hive, some will congregate outside.
Bees and Water
Bees don't consume water for hydration. Nectar has enough water in it. The only time bees gather water is to cool down the hive.
How Bees cool down the hive
The hive should be about 95F inside for the brood. Any cooler or warmer and the brood will suffer. However, an adult bee can handle temperatures much higher than 95F. When the hive starts to get too warm, the foraging bees will stop gathering nectar and pollen and gather water instead.
They bring the water back to the hive and spit it out over the brood. There are bees on this comb flapping their wings. This creates a mist within the hive and cools the brood down.
Other bees are leaving the hive and congregating outside the entrances. They flap their wings as fast as they can to ventilate the hive and create an additional source of airflow.
Aggressive Bees in the Summer
Another thing you may see is a time when your sweet little bees are acting out of character. They may be a little quick to sting or you'll just hear a louder buzzing when you check on them. This is often caused by a big nectar flow ending. The bees were busy gathering lots of food and now the hive is crowded with foragers that don't have much to do. Just like my sister and I home on summer vacation, I believe they get on each other's nerves when they're all cooped up and bored.
This is normal and they should calm down in a few days to a week. If the bees do not calm down after 10 days, do a mite test because a constantly aggressive hive that was once calm is often aggressive because of a mite infestation. If the mite level is over 7, you should take the honey supers off (harvest or store in a frig or freezer) and put in a mite treatment. Do not use oxalic acid at this time because it does not kill the mites in the brood cells and that is where over 90% of the mites are hiding.
Other Summer time issues
You may also see a low nectar season in the Summer. This can happen if there was a big rain that caused a lot of the flowers to drop, or a drought killed a nectar source or just a lack of flowers blooming. No matter the cause, you will see bees robbing each other. This is called dearth, but I really hate using that word. It sounds like a plague is upon your bees. It's not as serious as it sounds. It just means there's not a lot of food for the bees to gather.
The problem is that when the bees can't find food from flowers, they look to other sources. Bees can collect honeydew (If you're not familiar with this, look into it! It's super weird.) or they can rob each other. I know you're thinking, not MY bees. They wouldn't rob someone. But they do and you will see a lot of dead bees in front of the main entrance of your hive because of this. You may also see bees that look black and oily with no hair. These are bees who have been robbing.
If your hive is weak, you can put an entrance reducer over the main entrance and close off any additional entrances in your hive. If there are holes in your boxes, you can just plug them up with duct tape. However, don't do this if it is over 95F out and the hive is bearding! It's ore important that they be able to cool the hive down.
If the hive is starving, feed them frames of honey from another hive or put a syrup feeder in the hive. Do not leave a feeder outside the hive or you will cause a frenzy! Speaking of frenzies, don't leave any honey or bee equipment with honey in it anywhere outside or you will cause chaos. Trust me on this. I've done this many times after being too hot and tired from checking my bees to put stuff away. A few hours later, there's thousands of bees in my yard and my husband and dog are giving me the evil eye because they can't go outside without a bee flying at them.
Here's a great article about what to do if you see a lot of bees robbing your hive.
How to help the bees in the Summer
There's not much to do when these things occur. It is a part of Summer and the bees have been dealing with it since before humans even existed. Sometimes being an overeager beekeeper can do more harm that good.
That being said, here are a few things that can help the bees:
- Provide a water source. See below for tips on making a water source bees actually want to visit.
- Hold off on harvesting honey until the end of Summer to avoid starving during a dearth.
- Don't leave honey out for bees to rob.
- Don't put your bees in the sun if temperatures often get over 95F in the Summer.
Giving Bees a Water Source
This is a funny topic. Bees need water to cool down the hive BUT will they choose your water source? Maybe or maybe not. So this is the problem, studies have shown that bees prefer to go to water sources further away from the hive. Why? They don't know. But you should have some water near the hives and further away so they have a few options.
When making a water source for bees, you want to make sure there is somewhere for the bees to land - twigs, large rocks, wine corks (they float), water plants. Otherwise they will drown when they land.
Bees also prefer rain water to tap water.
The Pool Problem
Bees are notorious for visiting pools! Did you think honey bees were sweet little creatures? Sometimes they seem, to me, like a child going through their terrible two's. It's true, even though chlorinated water isn't good for bees, they love it! To keep bees from visiting the pool, the best thing to do is have a few water sources close by and further away from the hives that are better than the pool. Make sure its rain water, and there's somewhere for them to land.
Put the water source out before it gets hot. Often when bees choose a water source, it's hard to get them to switch to another one.
If you can't get the bees to stop going to the pool, the best thing to do is give them a hand. Put a small towel over the ledge so that some of it dips into the water. This will give the bees a place to walk into the water and get a drink without drowning. Why do this? At least you won't have to skim up dead bees from your pool, you'll prevent bees from drowning and you can put this in an area that gets less traffic, like away from the ladder. The bees have their own section and people have theirs. I'm sure that's not what your neighbor wants to hear, but that's about all a beekeeper can do. Remind them that your bees are also the reason why they have cucumbers in their garden if it helps.
Learn for next year
Next year, you'll have a little more experience under your belt and you can prepare for some of these things.
Put the water source out before it gets super hot.
Move the hives to a shady spot before they break their winter cluster and start leaving the hive.
Talk to other local beekeepers! Talking to beekeepers in your area will make beekeeping easier. They'll share how they problem solve issues and flowers that provide great food sources for bees which will help if you have issues with a late Summer dearth. Here's a list of beekeeping associations in the U.S.
For a guide to help you understand the tasks the beekeeper does in the Spring vs. Summer vs. Fall and Winter, check out our article, Beekeeping Tasks Through the Seasons.
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