Don’t let your bees go hungry
Here is a quick reminder about the amount of food a winter colony can burn through. Contrary to logic, your colony will eat more during a warm, balmy winter than it will during a colder one.
On warm days, honey bees will leave the hive and fly around looking for food, but flying is extremely energy expensive. Chances are, they won’t find anything to collect, so they spend a lot of energy looking for something that doesn’t exist. On the other hand, bees that are huddled together in a cluster share their warmth with each other and burn less energy.
A few warm days can help
Warm days do have advantages. A few warm days scattered throughout the winter will allow your bees to take cleansing flights, which are good for the long-term health of the colony. I’m always happy to see bees flying briefly after a cold spell or leaving yellow spots in the snow.
However, if the warm days persist and you discover your bees foraging day after day, it may be time to check on their food supply. Many times in the past month, I’ve noticed bees poking around the leafless bushes and examining the compost pile: too much flying too late in the year.
Flying bees are hungry bees
I was thinking about this one day when I received the following photo from Cal Early, a beekeeper here in Olympia. It shows a no-cook candy board, the same type that I use, that he made as an insurance policy. He writes:
Here’s a representative photo of a candy board on one of my 19 hives. They all have them, put on in early October, each containing about 10 pounds initially. Most of my colonies are in single deeps with a medium super on top, then the candy board above that. A big colony in a 3-deep configuration has only about 1 pound left in theirs. Looks like a winter to be sharp and watch their food carefully so as to avoid simple starvation.
Many people like to make candy boards as a precaution, just in the case the bees eat through their honey stores. But to have a 10-pound board go nearly empty by mid-December is kind of scary. In fact, I often don’t put them on until around the winter solstice (December 21) so this shows how unseasonably warm it has been in our area.
Brood rearing will soon begin
Remember, too, that soon after the winter solstice, brood rearing will begin to increase. Your queen will go from laying few, if any, eggs to laying more and more every day. If all goes according to plan, the hive will be overflowing with bees by the time the nectar flows begin. But more brood rearing means the colony will plow through even more food, so if there is any chance your colony may run short, you should check more frequently as spring approaches.
One time I made the mistake of checking on food stores every two weeks. I put it on my calendar, and checked like clockwork, often giving extra sugar to some of the more populous hives. But as spring approached, once every two weeks was not enough for my largest colony, and it starved to death sometime in that two weeks period. It still makes me furious to think I could be that dense, but it’s a good reminder that what was enough in winter may not be enough in spring.
As soon as I finish this post I’m going to do a quick hive check: lift one end of the quilt, peek at the candy board, and close it up. A check takes about five seconds but can be priceless.
Honey Bee Suite