Because the temperatures are rising; because rain is falling;because the days are getting longer we tell ourselves that spring is with us, or is not too far off. The bees know this and, to their benefit, a consequence of these natural happenings is another—flowers appear. Sometimes the flowers are what we call weeds, sometimes they are simply a sign that our vegetable plants have matured. and sometimes they are part of the natural cycle of tree development. Looking around our plots of the community gardens we see flowering radishes, broccoli,cabbage and cauliflower and also bees flitting from one plant to another–a true sign of spring.
It’s amazing that the bees that live in the commercial hives are living in the dark, yet they know what’s going on outside.Tucson does not have a hard winter that requires us to keep the hive warm by giving them a blanket to retain their own body heat so the hive responds by not going completely dormant, yet the bees don’t come out until the day has warmed up. Some flowers open early in the morning so it’s surprising to see adventurous bees busily leaving the hive while the morning is still cold. They are coming back with their pollen sac on their hind legs full of colored pollen. Those bees that gathered nectar don’t tell us quite so plainly that they have finished the first shift of their work day.
Why are they doing this instead of staying indoors until the day has warmed up? It’s a mystery because, as much as we know about bees, the queen lays eggs when life is favorable and the workers build new cells to accommodate her activity. Part of the motivation is forecasting the massive flowering of citrus trees and desert acacias, mesquites and palo verde. The bees live in the dark, so how do they know how get ready for a vigorous pollen and nectar collectiing campaign?
As a beekeeper I try to manage their instinctive urges and this is what I’m doing right now. I’m feeding the hive with sugar water in an effort to fool them to think there’s lots of food to be collected. They are responding by taking up the offering a little more quickly as the days go by. The sugar water disappears more rapidly as new baby bees are produced, first by the queen laying more eggs (somebody told her about the abundance of food) and secondly by workers tending to the increasing number of developing grubs. My rough assessment of the situation could be inadequate as I anticipate the citrus trees to flower. I think they should be in flower right now, but they aren’t.
There’s a danger in making wrong judgements. Having stimulated the bees to “wake up” for an event and the event has not taken place, there’ll be a crowded hive and that is something we humans don’t understand. The bees simply follow instructions and relieve the crowding by swarming– half the hive leaves with the old queen and half stays with a new queen that was produced and nourished in optimism that I created by feeding sugar water.
What can I, as a manager, do about this? First, I can provide more room by adding another box of waxed foundation and the bees will overflow into it. Secondly, I can open up the hive on a sunny afternoon to see whether new queen cells have been created in anticipation of a swarm. Those baby queens will have to be destroyed to relieve the pressure of preparing to split off. Probably both measures should be taken. I shouldn’t have to lose half of my bees because I fed them too early! and too liberally.
And I’ll hope that the current rains will stimulate my citrus trees (and all of my neighbors) to flower, thus giving the bees something to do. I must remember that they’ll collect nectar and pollen for themselves, and not for me, though I shall be happy to take some. I mustn’t be greedy and take all they gather, just a little for me without robbing the store for their own future well-being. And if I make a poor judgement call we both will suffer.
Beekeeping shouldn’t be a stressful activity for me, or for them. Hopefully we’ll understand causes and effects and do the right thing for us both.