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Art of Beekeeping

Bee Culture – September, 2007

by Walt Wright

The experts who write about beekeeping often refer to the “art” of beekeeping. What they don’t seem to understand is that is an admission of not knowing their subject very well. The art of beekeeping is trying to out-guess the bees. Guessing about what to do, and when, is what the art is all about. If the experts were familiar with the bees’ seasonal agenda, most of the guess work would go away.

The development schedule of the bees is synchronized to the development of local forage, and is predictable to the extent that local blooms are predictable for each season. There is some variation from season to season resulting from milder or more severe temperatures in the late winter/early spring. The average variation in tree species is somewhat less than that of less bulky plants, and usually doesn’t move on the calendar more than a week or so. Tree blooms, then, are predictable to plus or minus a week and the bee development schedule is normally predictable within that same range.

As it applies to swarm prevention, the vegetation development schedule gives the beekeeper the edge. Colony swarm preparations take somewhat over three weeks. The beekeeper that can read the vegetative development schedule for his area, and knows the reference points on the bees’ development schedule, has the advantage. He can intercede in the bees’ swarm process based on where they should be on the vegetation development schedule. Complex- but not incomprehensible.

Example: If you know that the swarm issue period for your area is the dogwood bloom period, as it is in mine, you can anticipate the bees’ schedule. Dogwood has the unique feature of growing blooms – they don’t just open from buds. When the buds break, a small, greenish petal has to grow into the showy, white petal that you see when it’s in full bloom. When you see the native dogwood in bloom, and you have not taken precautions to prevent swarming, you are already too late. Do better next year – and note calendar date of this year’s bloom. Surely, someone in your area has an ornamental dogwood in their yard.

About residential yard trees: I have some reference yard trees in my area that are representative of the major bee sources that my bees use in the early season. To keep abreast of the vegetative development, there are yard trees of American elm, red maple, redbud, black locust, and others ( the bees have no use for dogwood) that are checked in the early season for status. If redbud for example is retarded by a late freeze, not noticed, that yard tree is checked, close-up. There are some suspicious home owners who take an interest in my tree inspections on their property, but, so far, it’s not been a problem. I’m not suggesting that you trespass on private property if representative samples exist on the roadside, but it helps in colony management to know what the bees have to work with. With a little practice, you will learn to read bud development in terms of time until full bloom. Keep in mind that all of that species do not bloom on the same day. Some lead and some lag. The typical spread is about two weeks. The leaders are phasing out when the laggers are phasing in.

The beginning beekeeper, who grew up in a subdivision and doesn’t know one tree from another, has a lot to learn. No one advertises beekeeping as an effortless endeavor. Consider yourself an expert when you can identify the trees of interest to your bees in the dead of winter. They are recognizable by their bark and twig structures. And you will not find that information in the typical tree identification guide books. Enlist support for your learning wherever you can find it. Experienced beekeepers in your area should know the basics, and make friends with your state forestry folks.

All this talk about tree sources is only relevant for the eastern third of the country, where the woods have a good mix of sources. Substitute cacti and grasses for trees in the west. The western two thirds of desert and prairie don’t have that mix of trees, but the bees need multiple sources to survive. Forage is out there – you just have to learn what and when. I suspect that prairie country where beekeepers key on dandelion has a delayed bee development schedule. In my area when dandelion hits peak, reproductive swarms are already moved into their new quarters. My early tree sources make the difference. Take this conjecture with a grain of salt, and do your own homework.

I would accept an invitation to spend a spring season in either the desert southwest or the prairie northwest to get a handle on the bees’ development schedule for those areas. The bees’ adaptation to local conditions would be of interest to me, strictly from a curiosity point of view. The bees have the ability to adapt to forage availability over a wide range of variation. For a forest creature to have the means to thrive in the desert southwest, without trees, is particularly intriguing. The treeless prairie no less so.

Realistically, I expect no invitation to observe local effects on the bee development schedule. Although my needs are meager, it will be an intrusion over an extended period. If my interpretation of the bee development schedule in the wooded east were better received, there might be more interest in the adaptation of those observations in westerly regions. In spite of my expectations, the offer is extended. There is always the outside chance that some major producer would have an interest in how to adjust his operations to improve his production.