From the author: For the next few months, I look forward to contributing both written and photographic information here that relates to beekeeping — plain and simple. That will be a challenge for me because many beekeeping techniques are anything but plain and simple. In this column, I promise I will do my best to discuss common and some uncommon aspects of keeping bees in a realistic way that will include both the good and the bad — the right and the wrong way — to accomplish our tasks. Throughout the upcoming months, I hope you will communicate with me on various topics that I will be discussing. You and I both are trying to learn. As beekeepers, we are all in this together.
The action time of the annual season
I have read my title to this piece time and again — Hot Weather Bees and Beekeeping. Beekeepers, think about it. While we can keep ourselves busy during the cold/cold months, the real beekeeping action is during warm/hot months. Flowering plants are happily blooming, foraging bees are productively gathering resources — and you — the beekeeper — are in the thick of things — managing, manipulating, adjusting, and fixing. Oh, how bees and flowers must hate us.
Hot vs. warm
As a young man, I first kept bees in southern Alabama and the Florida panhandle area. During the summer, it was hot there, but the heat was all that I had ever known. At the time, it was not hot or cold, but rather it was simply July. Honestly, as a youth, I reveled in the heat. Not now.
Then my life changed. Many years ago, my family and I moved from the southern U.S. to northeast Ohio. Yes, it gets hot here, but nothing like Florida hot. Ergo, Hot Weather Beekeeping is a relative description of beekeeping at your location. What may be hot to me, would simply be amusing to other beekeepers who actually live in hot climates. I have some personal beekeeping experiences and observations from these two different climatic locations.
Your protective bee gear
Compared to decades and decades ago, you and I have beautiful beekeeping protective gear available to us. It’s your money, so I am not shy about spending it. Buy quality and buy an assortment. Maybe have a full suit and possibly a half suit. At my age, I now want to be comfortable and mobile within my gear. I really, really like the various models of veils that allow me to open the veil without having to remove the piece from my head.
While I try not to dwell in the past, I now have so much “past” as to be nearly unable not to take an occasional backward glance. Consider this past curio:
(1) In my earliest years, veil wiring was made of thin metal black screening — not plastic or Fiberglas. Upon being exposed to dripping perspiration, veil wiring would quickly rust and disintegrate. Beekeepers commonly put tape over the brown rust holes in the middle of their veils. Dressed in our smoky, dirty white suits with tape on our veils — can you just picture what we looked like?
(2) Upon bending over to manipulate beehives that were too near the ground, sweat from your brow would drip to your glasses, puddle on the back side of your glasses, and subsequently obstruct your vision. Commonly, eyeglasses would be removed but kept inside the bottom of the veil for use as needed. Salty perspiration would run through your eyes. Sweat bands only forestalled the inevitable salty eyes. The modified, white canvas suits would become soaked and stick to your clammy body. Stinging bees loved that development.
Why am I putting your through all of this? Manipulating bees in warm (or hot) weather will require you to be comfortably protected. I am pushing you to appreciate the improved inventory of protective gear options that beekeepers now have available. Don’t skimp.
An apicultural aside: Modern-day smaller leaf blowers and dusters have potential use as currently undeveloped beekeeping tools. In the old days, I shamelessly used the Dadant Tripod bee blower not only to remove bees from supers, but to cool me down on those blazing hot summer days. In addition to cooling, I am now wondering if the smaller blowers could be used to strategically administer smoke rather than just the general bellows delivery technique. What do you think?
Because warm-weather stings hurt
Hot bees are quick bees. Additionally, my nervous system is fully charged, and I am alert. To me, it is absolutely amazing how inconsequential the discomfort of a cold-weather sting is compared to a hot-weather sting. Who of us have not had one of those hot stings on a hot day that takes you to your knees? No one likes to watch a beekeeper cry.
Several factors are in play. First, in a hot climate, there is a good possibility that the nectar flow (and to a lesser extent, the pollen flow) is passing or has passed. The foraging populations are likely unemployed and are at full number. The bees are ready for you. The bottom line is clear — hot-weather stings are plentiful, painful, and meaningful.
An apicultural aside: When exposed to feisty, hot summer bees, that would come for you in significant numbers, novice beekeepers would frequently comment that these were the famed “Killer Bees“of days passed. Nope. On any given hot day, any given bee colony can be a hot hive that is hotly defensive. Under proper conditions, any colony is capable of radical personality changes. Be ready.
Hot weather bee behavior
In many instances, hot weather precludes intensive nectar and pollen foraging. Why would plants restrict pollination rewards during very hot weather? I don’t know. Maybe the higher temperature ranges disrupt the physiology of the plants’ infrastructure. Humidity levels? Evaporation? Water stress? For whatever reasons, many flowering plants do not readily produce copious nectar during hot summer months. (Soybeans in some areas might be an exception.) Such colonies have large bee populations with little nectar to gather. So, they frequently find something else to do.
Colonies are at full population with nothing to do — except steal from each other. Yes, during such lean times foragers can be seen at garbage cans, and they will nose around your log-splitting pile where you are cutting apple wood, but those are just busywork sites. The real larder that is worthwhile is the neighbor colony’s honey reserve.
Go to nearly any bee book and look up “robbing.” Most likely, the connotation will be negative. The beekeeper will have weak colonies attacked. Emergency recommendations will be made such as smoking all colonies and reducing entrances. If the scenario approaches horrific, some texts may even report that the beekeeper can even smell the odor of the alarm pheromone in the air. Oh man, this is a dire situation — right? The bees have gone crazy, and only the beekeeper can restore order. Right? Well, yes and no.
An apicultural aside: The worst cases of honey bee robbing occur in the most common place — our apiaries. We position too many colonies too close to each other. This would not happen in a natural setting. Know this — bee colonies do not love each other. They will readily kill each other if that act lets them get extra food reserves. We love our bee yards, and we cannot keep bees without them, but intensive robbing behavior is a feature of compacted colony numbers within an apiary. Be aware.
Your bee management responses to robbing outbreaks
If you are new to beekeeping, yes, go to any established text and review the protocol for dealing with robbing behavior. In some instances, the actions may be beneficial, but all outcomes depend on how severe the robbing outbreak is. Essentially close everything down, remove any exposed combs, apply smoke to all colonies and get out of there. In a perfect bee yard, bee behavior would return to “normal.”
If you are not new to beekeeping, I would suggest that you implement exactly the same emergency measures as listed above, but with one significant difference — so much as apicultural science information can explain — you understand what is happening during a robbing outbreak. It is not evil bee behavior. It is not simply criminal bees pillaging their unfortunate neighbors. It is not necessarily caused by an inadequate beekeeper.
Robbing is little more than a specialized form of foraging during lean times. It’s the brutalness of this seemingly aberrant behavior that offends our human empathy. The behavioral intensity of the “robber” is legendary in the apiary. These hyperactive foragers seem demonically possessed to ….