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Ross’s Bee Journal, #10: Winter Feeding

January 6, 2008

It’s 50 degrees F today, the day we have been waiting for. Yesterday was in the 40s and the day before was above freezing. The 12 inches of snow from December is all melting away. Hard to believe that only four days ago we awoke to below-zero cold (don’t even ask about the wind chill!).

As we enter our fourth year of beekeeping we humbly accept our newbie (or should that be newbee?) status. We realize there will always be more to learn, and the most important thing we learned this past fall is that January is a good time to give bees more food. Our bee teacher, Jeff, gives his bees pollen patties in January, since there are usually a few warm days when it’s safe to open the hives.

I learned this last spring, actually, in the first outdoor class of the season (early April). We opened up Jeff’s hives at the forest preserve to give them syrup and check their status and I was amazed at the large numbers of bees in most of the hives. Our own hives were still struggling out of the previous winter, with softball-sized clusters of bees. The top bars in Jeff’s hives were covered with bees. It was because of the winter pollen patties.

Bees need two things to raise brood: nectar and pollen. In the spring, when flowers start to bloom and the early nectar flows begin, bees can gather these two things and start to rebuild their numbers in preparation for the big nectar flows of summer. A pollen patty is a pasty combination of sugar syrup and pollen substitute (wheat germ and soy flour, for example) that provides both of the necessary brood-raising foods. Some ready-made patties are fortified with extra bee nutrients.

Giving bees a pollen patty mid-winter allows them to start ramping up brood production early, helps replace bees lost during the really cold days, and thus shores up the cluster so they can more easily weather the remaining cold days that are sure to come before spring finally arrives.

At our December bee class, which traditionally turns into a holiday party with door prizes provided by various bee supply companies, Jeff had an extra treat for everyone. One of the companies sent a case of pollen patties and we each were given two patties. Between Janice and I, it gave us just enough to feed the four hives we had going into winter.

If you remember the last Bee Journal, I ended by saying that of the five hives we had, one had never built up enough to make it through winter and that we were going to have to combine those bees with another hive. You may also recall that last season was full of surprises. That weak colony, #5, surprised us in fall by finally increasing to a size that seemed likely to survive. So we did not combine them.

However, #6, one of our stronger hives, perished at some point during fall feeding. We made several trips to the apiary last fall to feed the bees. Honey production was lower than the previous year (despite my optimistic prediction in Bee Journal #9), and the bees needed a lot of help. Before feeding, I’d lift the back of each hive using the hive tool as a lever, testing the weight to determine how much food they had stored. All of the hives felt heavier with each feeding, except for #6. Yet the syrup kept disappearing from the feeders of all hives.

With the last feeding, I realized that #6 did not have a population; its syrup (and whatever honey it may have had) was being robbed by bees from the other hives. We don’t know what caused #6 to crash. It could have been a weak queen, or heavy mite load, or something else. Anyway, that still left us with four hives to overwinter.

So today was the day we intended to give pollen patties to our bees. I had been out to the apiary a few times since our first snowfall, to clear snow from the hive entrances and to pull dead bees out so that the live ones can get out when they need to poop. Too many dead bees piled up behind the smaller winter opening can prevent the rest from doing this necessary “cleansing flight” (bees don’t like to poop in their hives).

Each time I pulled wads of wet, dead bees out with the hook end of a hive tool, I grew more concerned about their welfare. Now and then my scraping would stir a bee or two and I’d see some life there. Hive #4 kept surprising me by revealing a live drone on a couple of these trips. All the drones are typically kicked out of a hive in the fall, since the workers know food and warmth will soon be at a premium, and drones don’t participate in the wing muscle vibrating that keeps the cluster warm. I’ll give you my guess as to why #4 still had live drones in a minute.

This morning Janice walked through the apiary after feeding the swans and saw that bees were flying from two of the hives. She tried to listen to the other hives, but couldn’t hear any buzz from inside. So she came in somewhat despairing that we had lost the others.

A little while later we suited up and took the pollen patties out to the hives. By now we could see bees flying from all four hives. Our hope swelled. Starting with #6, we confirmed that it was indeed dead as we had been fairly certain in the fall. Next we opened #1 and found pretty good numbers of active bees. In #5 we saw the same. Each got a patty.

Moving down the row to #3 (they aren’t in order) we saw the fewest bees at the entrance. Took off the top and did not see a lot of activity. Some clusters of dead bees, a few moving around. This one may be dead, with robbers coming in from the other hives. We dropped a patty on it anyway and closed it up.

Finally we opened #4, the hive with the most activity at the entrance. This hive was started two seasons ago as a walkaway split (they raise their own queen), and last season had to raise a new queen after we moved their queen, accidentally, to one of the queenless packages.

It was chock full of bees, and they were not happy with me. Immediately, the veil on the front of my hooded hive jacket was covered with bees. The smell of ripe bananas signaled their intent. I brushed them off with bee brush and hive tool and went about my business. I think this hive was so strong last fall that they didn’t bother to force all the drones out. I’ve never heard of such a thing, but bees are full of surprises. Somehow, those few drones that didn’t get purged managed to hang on and find food well into winter. That’s my best guess.

We didn’t order any packages this year, as we were hoping to get most of our hives through winter. I figured that if we saw more dead hives today we could still get included in the group buy. With three hives doing well, and one possibly dead, we’ll continue as planned. Now, however, I’m thinking that if these hives build up well and early (because of the pollen patty feeding) we may be able to split them in the spring, and just add a new queen to each new colony. Jeff and Phil always order lots of queens for their own splits, so perhaps we can buy three from one of them.

It was great to be able to go into the hives today, in early January. It makes us feel like spring is just around the corner, satisfies our “bee jones” and gives us hope for the new season.

For those keeping score:
#1: healthy numbers of bees
#2: in storage
#3: may be dead
#4: very strong numbers
#5: healthy numbers
#6: dead since fall

Ross Thompson

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