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Season by season in a hive

A colony's activity varies with the seasons. The nearer the equator, the more even are the nectar and pollen supplies and therefore the honey production.

Spring

The only bees to survive winter are the queen and up to 10,000 workers. Hopefully, the colony has enough stored honey and pollen to feed them until enough early nectar and pollen is available. If not, the beekeeper can supply honey and pollen stored from the previous year in case of need.

Food supplements are second best. Patties of protein-rich substitute food made from soybean meal, milk, minerals, vitamins and high-fructose corn syrup are much better than sugar syrup. But even they are not nearly as nutritious as the bees' own honey and pollen.

Longer days, rising temperatures and good food supplies enable the queen to start laying, so plenty of workers will be available to collect nectar and pollen. Primed by good supplies of early nectar, the workers build honeycomb ready to store food for the growing brood. Supplies of protein from early pollens such as from coltsfoot and hazels are vital for healthy larvae.

Sources of nectar and pollen include certain trees (including willows and fruit trees), crops (such as avocado, borage, cotton, echium and winter-sown oilseed rape – canola), weeds (such as clover, coltsfoot and dandelion) and garden and wild plants (such as blackberry, crocuses, daffodils, elderberry, manuka, rosemary and tansy).

Most collected nectar and pollen feeds the growing colony. If nectarflows are very good, though, beekeepers can harvest surplus honey. As spring-flower nectar and pollen supplies dwindle, some beekeepers move their hives to areas that will be rich in summer flowers.

By mid-May, egg-laying is at its height.

Summer

The average hive population peaks in mid-July, with up to 50,000 workers and up to 1,000 drones, plus a brood of 6,000 eggs, 9,000 larvae and 20,000 pupae. As brood-pheromone production by larvae is at its height, foragers have ample stimulation to collect food. Summer plants tend to have particularly sugary nectar that quickly builds honey stores. Sources include certain crops (such as blueberries, borage, buckwheat, lucerne – alfalfa, and spring-sown oilseed rape), weeds (such as dandelion, milkweed, purple loosestrife, rosebay willowherb or 'fireweed', sea lavender, smartweed, star-thistle, trefoil, and vetch) and garden and wild plants (such as aster, borage, goldenrod, heather, honeysuckle, lavender, melissa or 'lemon balm', sunflower and thyme).

Bees need plenty of nectar whose honey will remain runny for months in the comb and thus be easy to eat. Honey from certain nectars (such as aster, clover and oilseed rape) crystallizes within a few days and is difficult for bees to dilute and eat. If such nectars form the bulk of their spoils, bees may go hungry later in the year. Beekeepers harvest such honeys promptly so that they can remove it from the comb.

In some areas and in some seasons, late-summer nectar-producing flowers are scarce. Usually, though, a colony can store enough honey and pollen to sustain remaining bees through winter and get the new brood off to a good start in spring. If there is more than enough honey for the bees, beekeepers harvest some for themselves. If bees are making monofloral honey, beekeepers collect the surplus as soon as this nectarflow ends. Beekeepers in Scotland, for example, may transport their bees to moorland in later summer to collect nectar from heather.

Autumn

The most northerly parts of temperate zones have few bee-friendly flowers from October to March. They include echium (second flowering), goldenrod, gorse (out for much of the year and visited mainly for pollen), heather and ivy. Falling temperatures make bees increasingly reluctant to forage, while shorter days reduce foraging time.

The queen lays fewer and fewer eggs. The last ones of the year become the workers that will raise the spring brood. To conserve food stores, workers kill remaining drones by starving them, pushing or excluding them from the hive or biting off their wings.

Some beekeepers wait until early September before removing their first honey of the year. Indeed, the US honey harvest traditionally begins on Labor Day (the first Monday in September). Two or more collections of surplus honey can usually be made each year, the last sometimes as late as in October, though some beekeepers make many more collections.

Winter

Short days prevent the queen laying eggs. The average colony shrinks to 10,000 bees at most. These stay active and eat the hive's food stores. If there isn't enough honey, or a beekeeper has taken too much, substitute food is vital or the colony will die.

If any nearby flowers blossom in January and the temperature is above 10ºC/50ºF, workers go out to forage.

If stored honey is very viscous, or has crystallized, bees dilute it with water before eating it.

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