The quintessential job of the beekeeper is to manage the ebb and flow of honey bee populations. The honey producer’s primary objective is to have peak bee populations when the major nectar-secreting plants bloom and/or a maximum pollination force is necessary. At the same time there should be enough of a population to survive during dearths and cold spells.
Often population growth is stimulated by feeding sugar syrup and/or pollen substitute (supplement) at least six weeks in advance of the main nectar/pollen flow. Artificially stimulating colony growth carries risks. Bees can starve to death just before a honey flow begins, if the food supply is totally consumed by the population. So, once stimulative feeding begins, it must continue until the bees stop taking syrup, indicating adequate supplies of nectar can be found in the field.
A bee colony needs an optimum, well-balanced population throughout the year. This is especially true in fall and winter when a suitable surface to volume ratio must be maintained for adequate heat management. A hive with too large a population runs the risk of consuming all its stores, while too few bees cannot produce and conserve enough heat to survive a cold winter. The ratio of drones to worker is also an important consideration.
Warm weather can also be risky, lulling the beekeeper into complacency. And don’t forget that adequate ventilation is an important aspect of honey bee colony health, as well as providing an adequate water source.
A final risk in stimulative feeding is that the population becomes too big relatively too soon. This results in the colony switching from survival to reproduction mode (swarming), which is the bane of many a beekeeper.
Fortunately, the beekeeper can often keep the swarming impulse down with proper management. Especially useful is preemptively splitting a colony about to swarm into new units, warding off the worst-case scenario, half of the bees moving off in search of a new home.
It is important to recognize that strategies that work for European honey bees in temperate geographic areas, don’t always translate to other geographic realms. This is the lesson of the rapid intrusion of Africanized honey bees into the Americas. This often unpredictable insect is turning much of what was considered dogma in beekeeping on its head in tropical areas.
Something always in the beekeepers mind should be the role of pesticides in the environment. Most are specifically “insecticides” and thus honey bees are always at risk when these chemicals are being applied.
A relatively new activity is honey bee removal for a fee. This is particularly prevalent in areas that have populations of Africanized honey bees. Specifically, southern Florida and California come to mind. At least one website attempts to catalog this activity around the country. Many others are involved one way or another in what beekeepers are finding is somewhat of a lucrative calling.