Updated Content and Dates: Jan 2017

A Beekeeping Diary #7: High Summer—The Main Honey Flow; a Crop of Honey and Bees

Around here, our honey crop—the excess honey we can sell—comes from the various clovers, birdsfoot trefoil, purple vetch, alfalfa and basswood. Because most of the open land is actively farmed or grazed, and has a heavy clay soil, star thistle (spotted knapweed) has only established itself in a few places. Goldenrod is common on unused land and odd corners, but doesn’t yield abundantly at this elevation in the southern Champlain Valley. Together with aster, it provides some welcome weight gain in the broodnest at the end of the season; but I think I have only seen one or two years when the fall flow was strong enough to push up into the supers. If you go just a couple hundred feet higher into the foothills, then goldenrod starts yielding really well—but you also begin leaving our most productive honey plants behind.

A.E. Manum, of Bristol, Vt., was a commercial beekeeping pioneer in the horse and buggy days. He was one of the first to have several outyards. In one of my old copies of The ABC of Bee Culture, there’s a great picture of his wagon and a team covered by homemade white “bee suits” with holes cut out for the eyes and ears—as if horses could join the Ku Klux Klan in those days. After the Age of Oil, future generations are going to have a tough time taking care of their outyards with horses if the Africanized bees get mixed into all our bee stocks! But anyway, Mr. Manum claimed that almost all of his crop came from the basswood tree—and it could have been true, because he also described having very large crops some years, and others of complete failure. By the time Charlie Mraz came here to work for J.E. Crane in 1927, white and alsike clover were the principle honey plants. At that time, all the beekeeping work has oriented around one goal: to have colonies in optimal condition for storing between June 20 and July 20. It was possible to have a honey flow in August, but in most years the last good honey flow of the season had played itself out by the ene of July, if not earlier. The available honey plants, current agricultural practices, and the hot, dry summers caused by the Adirondack Mountains’ “rain shadow”, all played a role here.

Since that time, three things have occurred which changed the nature of our honey flows, and the potential for getting a crop in this area. The first two involved the introduction of new honey plants: birdsfoot trefoil and alfalfa. The third is a more nebulous thing: the breaking up of old weather patterns—temperatures and rainfall are becoming more unpredictable.

Alfalfa was almost unknown in this country until a series of very severe droughts crippled the farm economy in the 1960’s. One of my bee yard owners told me that his 600 acres of hayland yielded only 200 (70 lb) bales in 1963. At that time these clay soils were not considered suitable for alfalfa, but a few farms had established test plantings. And these were the only fields that stayed green and continued to grow during those very hot, dry summers. After that the acreage devoted to alfalfa grew rapidly, and now it is grown on most farms in rotation with corn silage. All this corn is another new development since the ‘60’s, and has made a serious dent in the supply of clover blossoms available to the bees. But this is compensated for somewhat by the alfalfa in the rotation—dense stands of an excellent honey plant with great potential for nectar production during the former dearth of late July, August, and even September. There are some years when the bees never get even a whiff of alfalfa nectar; when the farms succeed in making three cuttings at the optimum time—just before blooming—when alfalfa has its greatest nutritional value. But in the majority of years, weather and other factors will conspire to provide a period of significant bloom.

Birdsfoot trefoil is a legume that grows very well on clay soils, and growing the seed was a minor industry in this valley for a time. This seed-growing is gone now, but the plant has become completely naturalized, and when conditions are favorable it can spring up everywhere—including on lawns and abandoned land. It comes into bloom with the clovers, but stays in bloom for a very long time. So, like alfalfa, it provides a potential source of nectar during the second half of summer.

Sometimes it seems like there are only three major events in a season of honey production here. First is the availability of new pollen from the red maples and willows that enables the colonies to start serious brood rearing. Second is the dandelion bloom—which makes a very strong build-up flow. Then comes the summer honey flow. We watch, with keen attention and in great suspense, as the hayfields start to regrow after the first cutting comes off. In some years the grass springs back and easily competes with the clovers, suppressing their growth. But in other years the grass almost disappears as clover and trefoil forge ahead everywhere and come into bloom. Sometimes the unused land is green the entire summer, fading gently to brown as the old grasses dry up late in the season. But the next year that same field could be painted with pastel colors for the whole summer as clover, trefoil and purple vetch take over. (I’ve never been able to tell, beforehand, what kind of a year it is going to be in this regard. Sometimes I think the whole valley must go through a kind of nitrogen cycle: moving slowly from grass to legumes and then back again.) Tractors and mowers try to be out there at the right time; but often the weather interrupts this military-style campaign—it’s either too wet or too dry. The bees might gather a crop in between rain showers, while the land is too soggy to support machinery. Or the alfalfa might bloom for weeks during a drought—when the plants are too short to be worth cutting. Sometimes a large percentage of a good crop will be gathered in just seven or eight days; either all in one week, or spread out through the season. Other years, the bees seem to gain half a pound every day for months. Wet, dry, hot, cold; as far as I can tell, it’s impossible to say what makes a good and bad honey year in the southern Champlain Valley. Bumper crops and crop failures have occurred in both wet and dry seasons. Charlie Mraz once told me that he kept careful weather records during his first 20 years in business here, hoping to identify the best pattern for honey production. But finally he threw the book away and decided: “When the Good Lord turns on the honey faucet, we get a crop—and when He shuts it off, we don’t!” All I know for sure is: there aren’t very many things in this life more exciting than producing a crop of honey.

During July, as my queen rearing and nuc making schedule starts winding down, more and more open days appear in the schedule. The explosion of growth in the apiary during June and the first half of July is wonderful to watch, but it’s always a great relief to back off from the relentless schedule and start the calmer and more routine work of guiding the new crops of honey and bees toward a successful conclusion in the fall. Now I can spend some more time with the honey producers, trying to get the last of the supers distributed right, and cleaning up the yards in readiness for removing the crop.

The best time for checking the new queens in nucleus colonies is two weeks after the nucs were made up—if they were started with mated queens; or three weeks after—if they were started with cells. This is the nuc’s weakest point, when they are covering as much sealed brood as they can, but still have no young bees hatching from the new queen. After removing the covers, you can see at a glance if each colony has enough (or too many) adult bees. And the presence of sealed brood on one of the two middle combs indicates the successful introduction of the new queen. Usually this can be ascertained by lifting the comb just a couple of inches. If everything looks good so far, there’s nothing much more you can profitably do at this point. Save your energy for later, when the nuc is crowded with new bees, and you need to decide whether to let them grow onto more space or not. If a nuc has no sealed brood at this time, then your introduced queen must have been rejected, or failed to mate if you used queen cells. These colonies are examined to find any rogue virgins or mated queens just starting to lay, and then combined with their neighbor, by moving the feeder off to one side. Any nucs that still have an old queen at this point—despite your best efforts earlier when the nucs were made up—will almost always be crowded and have brood in all stages. The extra brood and bees from these are helpful for boosting any nucs that are too weak, and need some help. I usually end up keeping these old queens if her bees look good.

By establishing these nucs in pairs, you are getting set up to overwinter, and test, the largest number of colonies on the smallest possible amount of equipment. When queens and colonies start to fall by the wayside, nucs can usually be combined with their neighbor, and all the combs and boxes stay in active use. By propagating a large number of colonies this way, you are also getting a significant portion of your apiary into a situation where it is less susceptible to varroa damage, and far more likely to survive the coming winter. If both parents of your new queens have the proven ability to survive and thrive without treatments, then you have the potential to move the whole apiary toward the goal of non-treatment in the coming years. In an apiary like this that has stabilized, the honey producing colonies provide the breeding stock; and the nucleus colonies provide the means to quickly amplify that stock into the coming generations. A crop of summer nucs also provides a way to recover quickly from a serious loss; and of course provides a valuable product to sell in the spring. I hate to mention it but there’s one more reason to raise crops of both bees and honey in the summer:  Because of the small space they need to occupy, these nucs can almost always find the resources they need to form a viable winter cluster, even when the honey crop is a failure. I’ve seen some years when, for all practical purposes, there has been no honey crop; but so far (knock on wood) I have never yet seen a failure in this crop of bees. Please keep in mind that I have always used stock that was well adapted and proven in this area; and that the vast majority of my new queens were raised from mothers who had come through the system themselves.

After all this work there’s an important note here at the end. During the last week of July and the first week of August, there’s a good opportunity to have a week or ten days of vacation—after the cell-building season is over, and before the last big push of the warm season:  harvesting the honey crop, and making the last manipulations in the new crop of bees.

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