A Regional Breakdown of How to Schedule Beekeeping Tasks
Isn’t it hard to “slow down” these days? Of course it makes sense that beekeepers are as busy as bees. In my work as an apiary inspector, I find myself scheduling inspections with beekeepers further and further in advance of when we meet. We schedule inspections two and three months before we meet and don’t bat an eye. We simply put it on the calendar.
So many of us live by cloud-based calendars now, though some of us still use pencil-and-paper models. What a stunt, seeing how many activities and events we can shuffle together. And what about scheduling time for ourselves, like some simple playtime? Personally, though my schedule is packed with commitments, I’m resolute when it comes to scheduling my playtime — my time in my bee yards and in my prairies. I’ve found that the best way to schedule special “playtime” days, setting them “off-limits” from work and obligations, is to turn all holidays into bee holidays. There is no other day easier to step away from work than a holiday. And holidays are set in stone — we already know when to expect Easter, Eid, or Earth Day — they are all scheduled years in advance.
Your bee tasks should be scheduled in advance too — without compromise. Of course, holidays are special days to be observed for their intended celebrations and remembrances. I would never encourage anyone to whittle away time with family or be distracted from “the reason for the season.” But at the same time, beekeeping can be considered a sacred act, worthy of pursuit on a holiday.
I’ll never forget a sentiment passed down for generations around my locale. I learned it from a retired apiary inspector who mentored me named Chuck Leitner. He told it to me as it was told to him by his apiary inspector mentor, Lawrence Leiper, a man once bound to a wheelchair, but who recovered from crippling arthritis thanks to bee sting therapy. The story as told by Mr. Leiper: “My preacher said to me, ‘Lawrence, I missed you in church on Sunday.’ I told him, ‘I was out in my bee yard, and I feel closer to God there than I do in church.’”
Chuck Leitner and I agree: Though we still need church, the peace of working bees begets a sense of enlightenment. Spirituality and beekeeping go hand in hand. Grant Gillard, a Presbyterian minister and previous author of this column, comes to mind as a spiritual beekeeper. And like Brother Adam at Buckfast Abbey, monks and nuns of several faiths have tended hives at monasteries throughout the world. Products of the hive are also sacred. Catholic churches once required candles of 100% pure beeswax (51% or more is still specified in most cases) because “beeswax comes only from virgin bees, which means the symbolic Light of the world is cloaked in virginity, just as Christ was at birth.” Beeswax was also considered sacred in Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece, and in Buddhism and Hinduism. So why shouldn’t your beekeeping be a sacred act?
Hopefully, if I have convinced you to hold your beekeeping in holy regard, you can easily justify dedicating some of your holidays to “listening to the bees” as Brother Adam did. Now I beckon you to open up your 2024 calendar and block out some winter and spring holidays for essential beekeeping tasks.
Holidays are the best beekeeping days
Holiday beekeeping comes with built-in hype. As your chosen bee holidays approach, every mention of the holiday serves as a sweet reminder of the task at hand. You’ll find this not only boosts your holiday cheer but spurs your subconscious to start working on problems associated with the task. When you see glittering seasonal items in the grocery store checkout line (say, shamrock deely-bopper headbands), a few cogs of your mental focus will turn with questions like, “Hmmm. When is the next nice day? Do I have all the supplies I need to paint my nuc boxes?”
Also, knowing that you have “work to do” on a holiday can help keep you out of trouble. Holidays can be tricky from a personal standpoint as so many holidays offer a wealth of merriment in the form of food and libations. Beekeepers who need a little extra help to resist the temptation of “over-enjoying” can find a solid reason to abstain from second helpings.
Source materials for making your bee-holiday calendar
Holiday-structured beekeeping is not my idea. I got this idea from another apiary inspector mentor of mine, Larry Roth, a mentor to so many and a honey judge at the Illinois State Fair. One day when Larry and I were inspecting bees, he told me that he likes to raise queens on Easter every year — that tying it to Easter made it a consistent practice. What a great idea, I thought! Except that the Easter date changes from year to year. However, a flexible holiday corresponds well with the flexibility needed to draw and follow a Bee Holiday Calendar. The weather is never predictable either, and most things in beekeeping are completely weather-dependent. So don’t be afraid to schedule annual beekeeping tasks on holidays that shift from year to year — you’ll be shifting to accommodate climate as well.
Before we jump into our activity of crafting our Bee Holiday Calendars, we have to recognize our own unique regional climates and the annual unfolding of local spring blooms. There are many resources to help map this out. One obvious graphic is the Plant Hardiness Zone Map. The zones guide us in identifying frost-safe dates to plant flowers, fruits, and vegetables. This map can help you pinpoint your beekeeping dates because bees wake up right alongside the flowers they depend on.
But how to find the flowers? There is a fun, interactive online tool based on some fascinating work published in the 2015 edition of “The Hive and the Honey Bee” (I hope you have this essential bible of beekeeping). This is George Ayers and Jay Harman’s “Bee Forage Regions of North America.” NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center digitized Ayers and Harman’s map, compiled of decades’ worth of phenology observations and field study. The map divides the continental U.S. into clickable “Bee Forage Regions” which lead users to comprehensive, regionally specific lists of blooming plants, a rough estimate of their bloom times, and whether the plants are major or minor sources of nectar. This tool can be found at https://honeybeenet.gsfc.nasa.gov/Honeybees/Forage.htm — or by Googling “Honey Bee Net Forage Map.” Don’t spend so much time playing with this tool that you lose an entire holiday! Save some time to read the original article by Ayers and Harman — it’s riveting!
Making the calendar
Here are several winter and spring holidays paired with examples of different regional beekeeping activities. These examples are meant to spark your creativity. We beekeepers all exist in microclimates — the only way we can truly get to know the intricacies of our local bloom times is by observing and documenting what we see. It’s wise to use pencil the first few years to note how your individual season unfolds. Year to year, your calendar will be a living document.
Now, let’s start with the next big holiday:
This is a last chance to treat for varroa mites using a simple and effective winter treatment method: the oxalic acid drizzle. Day length is a great factor influencing whether or not the queen is laying and the colony is raising brood. Now that days are getting longer, queens will begin laying again. Therefore, this treatment, which takes advantage of broodless periods, should be completed by Christmas. See last month’s Beekeeping Basics article for the how-to.
Commercial beekeepers are working so hard already, it would be wise for them to schedule this as a day of ….