As the middle of August approaches, bee colonies work harder and harder to maintain their hive’s internal temperature. You probably learned from any beginner text that the workers will forage for water to use in cooling the brood space. They spread the water on the combs and then fan it with their wings, using evaporative cooling. It’s very high tech!
You may be tempted to alter the hive configuration to provide ventilation. Beekeepers disagree on this issue. Small openings such as provided by inner covers don’t pose a risk to your hive, but you should think twice before making large openings in the hive. Some beekeepers prop or shim the cover, but be sure not to open it more than 1/8th inch. Larger openings will allow robber bees, and be aware that 1/8inch is plenty of opening for hive beetles to enter. If you decide to cut an upper entrance style hole, keep it small and be aware that the bees may well close it with propolis (an indication they don’t want it).
It’s also common in hot summers for a colony to “brood down” or reduce the colony population through attrition. In extreme cases, you may even see drones ejected from the colony. Consider the cause of this. A queen may be thought of as an egg extruder. As feed goes in one end, eggs come out the other end. It’s a simplified way of looking at laying rate. In the heat, more and more foragers will be required to fetch water, reducing the feed that enters the hive. Obviously with hot dry conditions, less feed may be available in the landscape too. So less feed means fewer eggs, less brood, and a reduced colony size.
When a colony broods down is not the time to make extraneous openings in their hive. Fewer bees are available for defending entrances that permit moths, beetles, and robber bees free access.
In dry conditions, bees will more frequently make a nuisance of themselves at water sources too. If you live in a neighborhood with close neighbors or lots of pools, consider putting out a source of water. Bees love salted or chlorinated water, so consider putting up a temporary pool of water that’s chlorinated. City water is usually tasty to bees, but over the course of a few hours the chlorination treatment used by the city may break down (put it in shade to prevent this).
You may also get calls that “bees have moved into my window AC unit.” Bees don’t often shack up in AC units because of the wind (from the fan) and the vibrations they don’t like. These calls are usually bees hunting water which is created and then pooled in the units. (Modern AC units reuse this water to cool the evaporator coils. These units may not have a visible drip outside because the coils evaporate the water quickly to increase efficiency. But there’s still a pool of water inside.)
What can beekeepers do?
During periods of dearth or heat (or both), you may consider keeping your bees brooded up by feeding them. Use in-hive feeders with small openings. This season is especially risky for robbing behavior. By keeping your colony brooded up, you reduce its exposure to pests, including other bee colonies, and you keep them ready to go to work making honey when the fall flow arrives.
You can provide a nearby source of water. Don’t be discouraged if no bees show up to it the first day. Once they foragers have found a source of water, they will continue to use it. They simply don’t go looking for another. The second day may bring more bees and new foragers venture out and find the water. By providing a nearby source of water, you reduce the number of flights needed to bring it back to the hive.
Strong bees will protect themselves against pests like hive beetles, so if your colonies become weak, you may need to address this problem. The remedy is the same as always, reduce the space they must defend, making sure that both sides of each frame can be completely covered by bees, even if that means taking some frames out.
When working hives in the summer it’s important to spend as little time with the hive exposed as possible. Full, detailed and time-consuming inspections expose the colony to robbing. Once started, robbing is difficult to halt. Be aware that the queen may halt egg production entirely without feed, so consider that in your inspection plans.
Count your mites! Treat if you need to treat.
Many beekeepers in Texas lose as many colonies in the summer as they do in “winter.” Stay connected with your colonies and don’t neglect their needs during this hard season. It’s hard on bees and beekeepers, but you must get out there and help. Stay hydrated and safe. Work in short periods broken up by breaks and plenty of water and air conditioning.