The dearth — it has begun

In the spring and early summer, beekeeping is really easy. The nectar is flowing and the bees are busy and happy because there's plenty of food for everybody. The colonies build up quickly and, if a beekeeper isn't diligent, throw swarms when the bees feel they are too crowded. There's a certain amount of good-natured competition among beekeepers for swarms but around here there are enough to go around.

The hives at my house face directly east into a wild canyon, where they forage on blackberry, coffeeberry, and poison oak in addition to the gardens and ubiquitous eucalypts in the neighborhood. It's a pretty prime location for the bees, as they wake up as soon as the sun rises over the lip of the canyon and are shaded from the afternoon sun. Someday I'd like to do a pollen analysis of our honey and determine exactly what the bees are feeding on; it would be very interesting to see how that changes through the season.

Green, Blue, and Purple hives facing into the canyon behind my house, 16 July 2015. © Allison J. Gong
Green, Blue, and Purple hives facing into the canyon behind my house, 16 July 2015.
© Allison J. Gong

All through the spring I spent time on the landing at the top of the stairs near the hives, writing in my nature journal or drawing. I'd sit with my back against the fence, notebook on my lap and binoculars at my side, and watch birds flying past at eye level. Because of the nectar flow the bees were mellow and pretty much ignored me, even when they were foraging in the coffeeberry bush a mere meter or so away from my head. Sometimes they even landed on me, treating me as just another surface on which to take a brief rest in their busy day.

Have you ever just sat next to a bush that's buzzing with bees? It's one of the more joyful and pleasant things about springtime, in my opinion, and I recommend it highly.

However, all good things must come to an end, and this holds for the nectar flow as much as for anything else. This year we had a very strong nectar flow early in the season, starting in late January and continuing until, well, some time before today. I had suspected that the spring bonanza would be short and intense, with flowers putting all of their energy into heavy nectar production early in the year while there was still some water in the ground, and it seems I was right.

When the nectar dries up, bees and beekeepers enter a time called the dearth. We beekeepers can detect the onset of the dearth in a couple of ways: (1) the hives get lighter as the bees begin to eat through their honey stores; and (2) the bees get irritable because they're not finding much forage. While beekeepers in the springtime boast about being able to tend their hives naked, nobody would dare do so in the late summer or autumn. It turns out that right now our hives are sending us mixed signals. They are still putting up honey, at least some of them are, and they're getting pissy.

This afternoon I went outside to my usual spot on the landing to draw for a bit. It was very pleasant there for about 20 minutes, then a single guard bee decided that This Must Not Be. I've noticed that bees don't seem to like dark hair, of which I have quite a lot, possibly because it makes them think "Bear!" It doesn't matter whether my air is pinned up or flying loose, the bees find it, get tangled in it, and try to sting my head. That's no fun for any of us. Anyway, this persistent guard bee got it into her tiny brain that I was not to be tolerated, and she kept buzzing around my head. The buzz of an angry bee sounds different from the gentle hum of a happy bee and I was alarmed immediately. She made her point and I fell in line. I packed up my supplies and left, but the diligent guard bee followed me all the way back to the house. At that point she decided that she'd done her duty and let me escape.

This defensive behavior will only get worse as we move into autumn. Even if the bees have enough honey stored to last through the winter, they will react to the shortening days of late July and August by refusing to continue feeding their drone brothers and more aggressively defending their hives. There will be no more lounging on the landing for me until next spring.

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