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When to remove quilt boxes and feeders

Since we’ve had some unseasonably warm days, many of you are asking when to remove quilt boxes and feeders. Others want to know what to do with all the bees in the candy boards and when you should reverse boxes.

Let’s look at the good news first. The fact that it’s February and you’re wondering how to handle all those bees is fantastic. It means your colony made it through the darkest part of winter and you’re heading toward spring.

The bad news is that winter is not over. Don’t assume that cold days and winter dearth are history. I’ve seen more colonies starve in late March and early April than at any other time of year.

Pollen is not nectar

Don’t be fooled by your bees’ activity. Today my bees are out there doing the Olympic thing. All dressed in matching outfits, they’re circling in the cold and posturing for the camera. But just because they’re flying doesn’t mean that winter is over, nor does it mean the bees are finding food. Many times early foragers bring in lots of pollen, and that can be confusing. It depends on your area, but many plants shed pollen early in the year—even in January and February—long before nectar is available.

Here on the Pacific Northwest coast, for example, red alder catkins are hanging low and shedding a creamy-yellow pollen in vast quantities. But alders don’t supply nectar. And although alder pollen is fine for bees, by itself it does not provide a balanced diet. Many other wind-pollinated trees and plants also shed early pollen, and that’s good. The thing to remember is full pollen baskets do not mean your bees are also finding nectar.

Foraging burns fuel

Remember, too, that bees out foraging are using lots of energy. If they do not find nectar, they must consume more of the remaining food in the hive. Plus, the pollen flow stimulates the bees to raise brood. An increase in brood means there are many more mouths to feed, so the rate of food consumption in the hive increases dramatically. If you’ve been feeding once every two weeks in the winter, you may have to feed once a week now.

If there was ever a time to monitor food consumption in a hive, this is it. The interval starting with spring flight and ending at the first sizable nectar flow is critical. More brood and more activity means increased food consumption just when stores are getting low. I know all about this, having made this mistake more than once.

Removing feeders

It’s impossible for me to tell you when to remove your feeders. The thing is, you need to look inside the hive. If your bees have honey, they most likely won’t need a feeder. As the air temperature rises, the bees will break cluster and find the honey they may have missed while clustered. If they have no stores, you need to feed them until there is plenty of nectar coming in.

The same holds true for pollen. If they have bee bread stored, they’re probably fine. If they have no pollen except for the stuff collected from wind-pollinated plants, then a pollen supplement isn’t a bad idea. It all comes down to what your bees are finding in your area. If you want to play it safe, adding some feed along with a pollen supplement won’t hurt anything.

Personally, I only have one rule for feeders: the feeders must be off before the honey supers go on. All the rest is noise. If there is hard candy remaining in the feeders, I just toss it in a bucket and keep it until I want to make syrup.

When to remove quilt boxes

As for moisture quilts, I take them off when I replace my solid inner covers with screened inner covers. If you don’t use screened inner covers, take the moisture quilts off when the air temperature is warm enough to keep the hive dry. If you remove the quilts and then find water condensing and dripping onto your frames, you took them off too soon.

For me, I’d rather leave them on too long than not long enough. I’ve accidentally left them on into hot weather with no ill effects. I just think, “Oh, how did I miss that?” and take it off. The Earth keeps turning and the bees keep doing what bees do. Don’t worry so much.

Bees in the candy boards

And what should you do if the candy boards and feeders are full of bees? Well, you can smoke them down, which works pretty well. If the candy board is nearly empty, you can turn it over and tap it until most of the bees fall into the hive. Or, if it’s warm, you can take off the candy board and lean it against the hive and the bees will find their own way in. Or you can use a bee brush and flick them out. Or you can use an escape board between the candy board/feeder and the brood box. For heaven’s sake, you’re a beekeeper. You can solve this.

Reversing brood boxes

A related question concerns reversing brood boxes. I never reverse boxes and don’t intend to start. It’s been demonstrated many times that bees move up in winter, down in summer. Reversing is practiced by people who believe bees always move up, or who are too impatient to wait. But as we’ve discussed before, look at a tree cavity, an open air colony, or a colony in the framing of a house. Where do the bees build in spring? Under the existing combs. They only go up if you give them a place to go.

Beekeeper happiness

Except for monitoring the food supply, most of these timing decisions are about the beekeeper. You should do what feels right to you, what makes you happy. If you want to reverse boxes, do it soon and do it often. If you want to remove your quilt on the first 60 F day, go for it. If you want to try talking your bees out of the feeder, knock yourself out. It’s all about making the beekeeper happy. For the most part, the bees are at their “happiest” when you finally walk away.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

An early February honey bee looking for an open flower. She really doesn't care when you remove quilt boxes or reverse brood boxes.
An early February honey bee looking for an open flower. She really doesn’t care when you remove quilt boxes or reverse brood boxes. © Rusty Burlew.

 

Comments

Sandra E Chubb
Reply

I love your posts – practical, interesting and entertaining. What more can one ask? Thank you.

Rusty
Reply

Thank you, Sandra.

BeeHappy
Reply

As far as the quilt box, I agree with Rusty too long on the hive is the better mistake to make. The quilt box has been on all winter the brood nest was expanded with the thermal dynamic they had when they started and the brood nest is as big as they can keep warm (with the quilt box in place). By removing it, the whole thermal structure inside the hive can be changed a lot. Chilled brood could start foulbrood. If there is frost at night the quilt traps a lot of air and helps keep the heat in. For me when the white fuzz of the dandelion is blowing in the lawn is the time I remove them. Timing is a weather structure not necessary a date. I use events more than dates. Honey is off before the goldenrod bloom, and quilt boxes on at the first sighting of a red maple leaf. I suspect you could leave the quilt box on all summer. At some point it would keep the sun from over heating the top if you’re not in the shade.

Thanks
Keith

BJ in Santa Fe
Reply

Thanks again for your timely posts. I was busy making brood boxes for splits all day long.

We all can’t wait for spring!

Thanks Rusty!

Nancy Ogg
Reply

Thanks, Rusty – calming and funny

Pro tip: remove the feeder box BEFORE the bees line it with burr comb running every whichaway. Sorry we didn’t get a picture (neighbor’s hive).

I’ll just bee happy if the water maples bloom after this rainy spell.

Nancy
Shady Grove Farm
Corinth, Kentucky

Bonnie G.
Reply

Hi Rusty, I always thought I had to reverse the brood boxes in spring. Thanks for correcting that. I won’t be doing that again.

Cindy in the Northwet Cascade Mountains
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Hi Rusty,

Thank you for all the great information and experience you share. I learn so much from you. I am still in my first year of beekeeping and love to read your blog. I have been waiting for good weather to check my bees. I haven’t done anything this winter other than quietly look at the outside of my two hives and look into their little doors from 6 inches away so I don’t disturb them. I didn’t see any activity on my weak hive at all this winter. I saw some of the girls in the strong hive looking out on a sunny day in January. A couple weeks later I saw some bee poop on the front step of their hive.

We have had warmish weather here, high 30’s and low 40’s, but it was rain rain rain after our 85 inches of snow in 11 days. I am the only beekeeper who has tried to winter bees here. Maybe I am an optimist. Well, I know I am an optimist and stubborn and if someone tells me I can’t I just try harder. If the feral bees can survive here why not my hives?

Today was sunny and the temps were near 40 so I figured this would be the best chance I have had in the past few weeks to see if they were taking some cleansing flights. No activity even with the sun warming the hives. Not a good sign. I listened at their doorways. No buzz. I took off the insulated top cover on the strong hive. Nobody came to see why the sun was shining in the hole in the inner cover.

I was getting worried but still had hopes. I decided to check stores since I was that far in just in case I needed to put some sugar on so I popped the inner cover. I knew then there was not much hope. It didn’t smell very good. There was some mold, a few dead bees and bee poop all over the top of the frames. Definitely no buzz. My heart sank for them. Poor bees.

I took off the honey heavy top box and noticed it had a lot of mold even on the capped frames. I pulled some frames to examine from the bottom brood box. Some honey and pollen and open cells. There were some moldy bees that looked like they died just walking around. I figured the weather will be good for the next few days so I can get the dead bees out and tidy up another day. I really wanted to check the weak hive so I just closed the dead hive up again. No better luck in the weak hive. They had their top box full of capped honey and their bottom box was much the same only very little mold. I saw the small pile of bees on the bottom board. Since their capped honey had no mold on the cappings I pulled it. My first sad honey harvest.

I came in and ordered two new nucs for April. I am not giving up. My husband smiled and told me that is some expensive honey. I said just you wait. The bees that made that expensive honey cost him $270 plus the cost of all the equipment. I already ordered some more equipment for this year to expand my operation before I knew my bees didn’t make it. He is in over $1000 now and I just ordered another $280 in bees on top of that. I wonder since he is so invested in my hobby if he will start keeping bees with me? Keeping my hopes up there too.

Since I have all this equipment now I am also going to try and catch some feral swarms and if that doesn’t work split one of my new hives and take it over to my parents house 4 miles away where I know there are feral bees and no beekeepers to get some genetics from feral survivor drones. Last year I found info on a queen breeder who had some genetics from some feral mountain bees near Mt Rainier so I have that option too.

My sister told me I should just buy honey instead of wasting all this time and money. I could have new living room furniture instead of bees. I told her it is not just about the honey or the money and my couch sits just fine for watching bee videos on the Youtube. Nobody sees it but hubby and the dogs anyway.

It is so satisfying to have a relationship with the bees. I love to learn about them from other beekeepers. I have always loved to watch them in the garden even before I took the plunge. I loved to sit and watch their comings and goings from my hives and talk to them while they were working. I was amazed that I was brave enough to stand in a cloud of busy bees while looking at frames above their open hive during peak flow last summer. I am fascinated by what they have taught me in my one season. I want them to teach me more. I have to move forward. I have no choice. I am a beekeeper now.

Cindy

Rusty
Reply

Cindy,

Did you do a mite count last summer or fall? Sounds kind of like a mite problem.

Cindy in the Northwet Cascade Mountains
Reply

Good morning Rusty,

I didn’t do a mite count. Being a newbee I had this idea that since we are so isolated from other beekeepers, 15 miles to the nearest possibility as the bee flies in any direction, that mites weren’t going to be as big a problem for me. You are right. I brought the box from the not moldy hive in and there were a few bees left in there. I set it on its side on a tv tray and put a fan on it to dry up any moisture.

A few of the bees blew out and then I got a long skinny seafood fork out to fish out a few more without hurting the honey comb. I had 6 dead bees and was using my led head light from Costco to see if there were any more in there. I saw another and tried to get it out with my finger and a damp dead mite came off of it and stuck to me. Then I looked close at the other bees.

One bee had three mites on her. A couple of the others had one mite. A young fuzzy bee didn’t have any. Seven mites from 6 bees. I feel bad now that I could have helped them. Live and learn. One positive thing that I got out of this is that I know my bees didn’t die of some dread disease that means I will have to burn the frames and scorch the boxes. My house smells so sweet this morning from the fan blowing through that box of honey. The wood tv tray table has a nice line of propolis stuck to it when I turned the box this morning.

When I brought it in last night and was looking at I noticed that the wax had a purplish bloom on it and looked soft. It must have been the humidity from all the wet weather we have had. This morning the bloom is gone, it has changed back to it’s normal golden color and it feels strong where I can touch it. I can see different colors of honey when I shine the light through the box and it glows. There were sticky moisture beads in a few places on the comb and I noticed a cell near the bottom that had a dead bee next to it that was opened. It’s contents were pretty fluid so it must have absorbed moisture from the air after the hive died and dripped honey water out. Now they are just like sticky honey beads.

Unfortunately for me that was a box that I put on when I thought the hive was level but the bees knew so it is cross combed. I have a strategy for getting it out. It will be a fun sticky project. The wonderfully fortunate thing is it is a whole box of Kelley F style frames. Comb guide foundationless. It is a whole box of comb honey that the bees built. Now that it is light I am going to go see how much mold there really is in the other hive. I might have two boxes of comb honey.

Mmmmm.
Cindy

Andrew Hogg
Reply

Well we just had about 35 cm of snow (about 1 1/2 feet) over the last week. I just cleaned the lower entrances today and happily all hives are still alive but we’re a LONG way from the end of winter in Calgary, Alberta. I wish we had flowers – even ones that aren’t open!

Richard Rurup
Reply

Hi. Does your solid inner cover have a hole in the center? Is it above or below your quilt box? I winter with a quilt box ( with poultry bedding) and a vented gable roof. When it starts getting hot I dump the bedding out of the quilt box and put it back on where it stays until winter. Upper zone 7b, central AR. I really appreciate your site, thank you.

Rusty
Reply

Richard,

I don’t use an inner cover with a quilt box.

Rick
Reply

Touche’! These girls have been taking care of themselves a whole lot longer than we’ve even been around!

Dan G
Reply

Naperville IL just got about 12 inches of snow Thursday night into Friday and now we are expecting 6 inches of snow on Sunday with a low temperature of 3F and a high of 21F. Winter is not over here.

If I had quilt boxes I would not take them off until the almost guaranteed date that you will not get frost.
https://davesgarden.com/guides/freeze-frost-dates/index.php?q=60565&submit=Go

Ray
Reply

Informative, to the point and with a dusting of humour as always Rusty. In the UK we have had a couple of afternoons with bees out in good numbers carrying dead and cleansing, but we plunge back into minus numbers most nights so fondant will be on for quite a while yet.

Larry Fuchs
Reply

While I really appreciate your posts, you can be confusing. Take this post, in it you say that you never reverse boxes and you don’t intend to start. Right before this statement there is a link to a 2011 post, reversing brood boxes. There you say that “In the past, I always reversed my boxes. I have killed queens doing it, totally riled up my colonies doing it, starved portions of the nest doing it, and even dropped a whole box doing it. Last year, I only reversed three before I decided it was a needless incursion into the brood nest. All the colonies eventually moved into the lower boxes by themselves. This year I won’t reverse any.” So I ask, which is it??

Rusty
Reply

Larry,

I have not reversed a single brood box since I learned it was a waste of time. That was seven years ago.

I hope you can find a less confusing website.

Ames
Reply

“For the most part, the bees are at their “happiest” when you finally walk away.”
Perfectly true.

Warren
Reply

When to, where to, why to — or not — you cover it all in a down to earth, humorous way. Thank you!!

John Zone 5
Reply

Great post as usual. I am happiest when I walk away too!

Thank you Dan G for the freeze/frost data. In our zone quilt boxes need to stay on until April.

Don
Reply

I have a question about quilt boxes.

I understand their purpose in winter but have often wondered why not leave them on year round? In the hot summer I read about recommendations to lift the lid to improve ventilation in the summer. But that creates a potential entrance for intruders that needs guarding.

Leave a quilt box on and now it’s like an insulated attic with improved ventilation.

So can someone tell me why they should be taken off…..at all?

Thanks in advance for a response.

Rusty
Reply

Don,

First off, I agree that lifting the lid and propping it open is bad practice. It’s a way to easy to encourage robbers and predators. But I’ve measured the in-hive temperature just above the brood in summer, and found it gets 10-20 degrees F hotter with a quilt than without. Granted, all hives will be different, but I prefer to remove the quilt during summer. What I actually do is dump the wood chips in a bucket and put the empty quilt box back on, so it acts like a screened inner cover and provides good ventilation.

I think if you had a lot of honey supers above the brood box, the quilt would not retain as much heat because there would be more space for it to dissipate, plus there would be a greater chimney effect due to the greater height of the hive. There is probably no right or wrong answer, just an answer that works best for you.

Don Rice
Reply

So leaving it on but taking out the wood shavings may not be a bad idea after all.

Thanks for the insight.

DTR

Steve Shorney
Reply

I hate reversing brood boxes. It is a lot of work and must be totally disorienting to the hive. Bees are so clever in so many ways but duh they cant figure out how to move down when there is space available? If the lower chamber becomes honey bound I can understand reversing boxes but in my experience this is rarely the case.

Terri Brantley
Reply

Thank you for your website. It is by far my favorite and most trusted reference when searching for input on ALL my many questions as a second year beekeeper.

Having said that, I am seeing report after report of big losses this year by beekeepers, even my mentor lost several hives this winter and that just doesn’t happen. I follow and read, but there are no specific causes being determined, several have mentioned dead clusters out of reach of the honey. Have you been seeing the same things? and you said, I believe, that bees don’t die from just the cold, but that is what everyone is blaming, the cold. I have seen people saying there is no excess moisture or mold. And did you see the thing from the guy at the EPA asking for beekeepers to report their losses to him? I am looking for the original post I saw on Facebook, but the one I shared to a page was deleted. Is there such a thing as a bee autopsy? I look at my dead bees in front of the hive and they look perfect. I am sorry for running on, but I want so badly to succeed at this!

Rusty
Reply

Terri,

This is really a bigger question than I can answer in a comment. It would take pages. But you say, “Even my mentor lost several hives this winter and that just doesn’t happen.” Well, obviously, it does happen. You just said so.

I continue to maintain that honey bees don’t die of cold. But that said, it has to be a healthy, robust colony to start with. You can’t go into winter with a baseball size colony and expect it to stay warm. A colony cannot have a viral infection, heavy mites loads, Nosema, poor diet, lack of food, or any other deficiency going into winter and still manage to keep itself warm. To maintain warmth, a colony requires healthy, numerous bees with plenty of food.

Beekeeping is the art of helping your bees optimize. I never listen much to the reports of “big losses.” There are always big losses. But most commercial beekeepers, and most long-time hobbyists manage to minimize their losses. Remember, 80% of beekeepers don’t make it through two years. Most of those reports are coming from the 80%.

If you say, “My bees died of the cold” you have absolved yourself of all responsibility. But in truth, there was probably something the beekeeper could have done differently. Unusual cold requires unusual management. Just doing the same thing, especially after circumstances change, is bound to lead to failure.

For those of us in the northern climates, winter management begins in August. My guess is that most (not all) of those losses occurred in hives that were not treated for mites before the winter bees were born. A colony with a viral infection going into winter will probably not make it, whether or not it still has mites.

Jason
Reply

What daytime temps do you look for in order to switch from candy to syrup feeding? My candy board is 2/3 gone so far, trying to decide whether to go to mountain camp feeding or syrup when the candy runs out.

Rusty
Reply

Jason,

The syrup itself (not the air) has to be above 50 degrees F before the bees will drink it. So it will depend on how big the feeder is and how far away from the warmth of the cluster it is. You may have to experiment to see what works.

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