The amount of dead bees that can accumulate on the bottom of a Langstroth hive by December 12th is somewhat alarming.
The amount of dead bees that can accumulate on the bottom of a Langstroth hive by December 12th is somewhat alarming.
Do you ever wonder where your honey bees go to collect nectar and pollen? I do. I spend hours watching my bees come and go from my beeyard. I still don’t know where they go, but I know what direction they head when they leave and what direction they come back from. My hives are surrounded by trees. I can look up at a certain tree top at a certain time of day and see hundreds of bees a minute whizzing past one another like cars on a freeway. That particular tree, which happens to be a single dog berry tree in a thick ring of spruce trees, seems to be a visual marker for the bees that says, “This is home.” It’s a hub of honey bee traffic. But I digress.
I don’t know exactly where my bees go to get nectar and pollen, but a free online tool, that came to my attention via Happy Hour at the Top Bar, allows me to map out the potential forage area of my bees. Let’s cut to the chase:
Go to FreeMapTools.com and click the link for “Radius Around Point,” or the map underneath it that looks like this:
Something weird happened. I got several emails from people asking me what I do to prepare my hives for winter. It’s weird for a few reasons.
First because I don’t consider myself the most experienced beekeeper around. I’m still honest about most of the mistakes I make in my beekeeping — and to this day I continue to make big mistakes. But am I really the best person to ask advice from? Although I don’t mind sharing my experiences, I’m not so sure about giving advice. I’ve seen beekeepers, myself included, fall into the trap of giving advice with little experience to back it up. Novice enthusiasm morphs into a little ego trip. It happens. Most people grow out of it through humbling experiences. But not everyone. I know beekeepers with no more or even less experience than me who have acted like hotshots since day and are glad to give advice to anyone who will believe it (because nobody ever doubts the wisdom of beekeepers for some reason). I’d rather keep my advice to myself than go down that road. I’ve even considered hitting the reset button on Mud Songs to make sure nothing too conceited gets on record. Why not? It might be fun. Either way, how much expertise do I really have?
Probably not too much. I’ve been beekeeping as a hobbyist since 2010 under ideal and less-than-ideal circumstances. Although I’ve had some much appreciated assistance from friends and fellow beekeepers at times, 99% of everything I do in beekeeping I do alone, not with the guidance of a mentor or in consultation or conversation with other beekeepers, most who live so far away that getting together with them is a logistic headache. All of which adds up to learning just about everything on my own and learning it the hard way. Learning through my painful mistakes perhaps puts me ahead of the game in some respects, because I’ve seen first hand all kinds of lovely things that can go wrong. But I think I’d be much further ahead if I’d learned along side more experienced or even equally experienced beekeepers. There are so many things that a beekeeper learns from other beekeepers simply by seeing what other beekeepers do and how they do it, obvious things that are easily overlooked — and that’s where my education and experience is lacking. The insights gained from hanging out and talking with other beekeepers will not be found here, not from me. I’ve done well considering that most of my beekeeping has been in isolation, but that isolation leads me to doubt my expertise.
The other weird thing is that I didn’t think many people read my blog these days. I don’t have the time for making as many fun or interesting videos, etc., like I used to, and my readership dropped off to virtually zero after I had to pull the plug on the blog last year. Or was that two years ago? In any case, my stats never recovered from that. I averaged around 1000 visitors a day with a regular band of people getting in on the conversations in the comments section. It was a small niche but an engaging niche. That’s gone now and I’m fine with it. The Internet is fleeting and most new and eager beekeepers move beyond the obsessive phase eventually. I know I cut way back on my reading and research after my third year. I still visit plenty of web sites, though I rarely get in on any discussions. I’m also too busy with actual beekeeping and living life to sit in front of a computer for hours on end like I used to. And I doubt I’m the only one. But is my niche coming back or something? What’s up? Where are these people coming from? It’s unusual.
Whatever is going on, the emails have been coming in on a regular basis, so I’ll bite. I’ll even bang out narcissistic, pointless paragraphs like these while I’m sick in bed because what the hell, no one’s probably reading this anyway. Let’s go a little nuts here and see if anyone notices.
So the big question I’ve been asked for some reason is: “How do you prepare your hives for winter?”
LAST UPDATED ON JANUARY 12, 2016.
I usually pour dry sugar over newspaper into my Langstroth honey bee hives so the bees have something to eat just in case they run out of honey during the winter. Some people refer to it as the Mountain Camp Method, but I’m pretty sure beekeepers have been pouring dry sugar into their hives long before Mr Camp came along and popularized it. I’ll call it Dry Sugar Feeding for now on. In any case, it may not be the best method for feeding bees over the winter, but it works well for me and that’s what matters most. I like it because it’s the easiest method I’ve ever tried and it may be better for the bees than hard candy or candy boards. Do a little research on Hydroxymethylfurfural and you’ll know what I’m talking about.
When I first fed my bees dry sugar, I waited until January or February when the bees, if they were low on honey, would cover most of the top bars in the hive. But waiting that long is a pain in the butt for all kinds of reasons, so now I put the sugar in long before the bees really need it — just like I did today. Here’s an 11-minute video recorded a few hours ago that demonstrates the dry sugar method in all its glory. I also explain near the end how moisture quilts work.
P.S.: I’m not a big fan of feeding the bees pollen patties early in the winter because most of the time they don’t need it and it’s not always good to give the bees solids when they can’t get outside for cleansing flights. I try to reserve pollen patties for small colonies that could use a little boost in brood production. The colony in the video that I refer to as being about the size of a human head will get a pollen patty in a week or two. A small cluster like that, which is likely to get smaller before it gets bigger, won’t be able to stay warm much longer. The colony could be in trouble if I can’t get the queen laying soon.
Another postscript (written in part as a response to the first comment): If I had to do this again, I would place something round in the middle of the newspaper, a small bowl or a jar perhaps. Then after I poured the sugar on, I’d remove the bowl or jar so that a round sugar-free area of newspaper was left behind. Then I’d cut a hole in the exposed newspaper so that when the cluster came up, the bees would go through the hole without having to chew through the newspaper to get at the sugar. The hole would also allow moisture from the cluster to rise directly up to the moisture quilt. (If I have a chance, I’ll record a follow-up video.)
This is the time of year when I say to my bees, “I know things are looking grim, but just hang in there for another two months and you’ll be alright.”
The number of dead bees that fall to the bottom of a hive in the winter can be alarming. The bottom entrance of most of my hives look like this near the end of November:
But that’s just he beginning. Most of the bees alive inside the hive today — let’s say about 15,000 bees — will be dead before the weather warms up again in the spring. That pile of dead bees is gonna get big. Check out this bottom board from one of my hives last year:
The bottom entrance to that hive was clogged with dead bees by January and I wasn’t able to clear it out, so the photo might be a fair example of how many bees can safely die over the winter, at least in a large colony. That particular 3-deep colony was full of bees (living bees) by the end of June and gave me my first honey harvest before the end July.
So it’s not all doom and gloom.
The other good news is the Winter Solstice (usually December 21st or 22nd), the shortest, darkest day of the year. In theory, the queen begins to lay again, or increase her laying rate, once the days get longer. She won’t go wild with laying eggs right after the Solstice, but with longer stretches of daylight, at least new bees will begin to emerge to replace the winter die-offs.
That’s why I usually feel pretty good if my bees are alive and well by the end of January. They’ve gotten over the hump of Winter Solstice and baby bees are just beginning to emerge so the population is more or less stable. As long as they don’t starve to death or get eaten alive by shrews, I’m good. New bees should outnumber the dying bees sometime in April or May so that the population begins to go up and up until it peaks around June and stays there with about 50,000 bees until the end of July. Nice.
The next two months, though — that’s when I worry the most.
I often use a cheap stethoscope to monitor my honey bees in the winter when they’re still clustering below the top bars and out of sight. It’s the least disruptive method I have for checking on the bees.
It took some practice, but I can tell how deep and how large the cluster is by listening through the hive with the stethoscope. Most of the time, though, I’m just checking that the bees are still alive. That’s usually good enough for me.
Sticking my ear against the hive works too, but it’s not as dignified as walking around with a stethoscope.
A beekeeper on the island of Newfoundland recent said:
I wholeheartedly agree with that beekeeper. He seems like a smart guy.
I have a quick and easy method for inspecting my hives when it’s freezing cold outside like it is today. I take a quick peek under the hood to see how high the cluster has risen. It literally takes three seconds. Not much danger of chilling and killing the bees. When the cluster is so high that the bees are covering most of the top bars, it’s time to give them some sugar. Why? Because in my experience, the bees head to the bottom of the hive once the weather turns cold and gradually work their way to the top as they eat through their winter stores of honey. Usually the higher the bees are in the hive, the less honey they have and the closer they are to starving. (Usually, not always.)
All of my colonies live in 3-deep hives. Most of them seem to have between one and two deeps of honey to keep them alive all winter. Even though that’s more than enough honey, I have considered dumping sugar in all the hives just to be safe. But I think I’ll wait and see what happens. It would be wonderful to get through a winter without having to feed my bees, though chances are I’ll get paranoid and give them loads of sugar even if they don’t need it. My plan, if you can call it that, is to give them sugar perhaps even before the cluster is covering most of the top bars. As of today, though, nar a cluster is to be seen. And I hope it stays that way for the next few months (not likely).
Here’s a detailed copied-and-pasted entry from my beekeeping journal to illustrate what I’m talking about.
First up, 1505, a colony that was inadvertently started from a supersedure cell in July. The first sign of brood soaking in royal jelly from the naturally mated queen showed up around August 10th and I fed the colony sugar syrup until the end of October. It’s not what I would call a fully established colony, though not bad considering it’s only three months old.
In a previous post, Moisture Quilts vs Hard Insulation, I argued that hard insulation over the inner cover is a cheap and easy way to keep a hive relatively warm and dry over the winter. And it is. I used hard insulation in my hives for several winters with no problems. Even though I’ve since switched to moisture quilts, this year — as in a couple of weeks ago — I set up two of my five hives with hard insulation as a demonstration that I planned to report in on over the winter. But I pulled the plug on that experiment because I discovered moldy frames in the top boxes of those two hives yesterday.
Someone asked me when, why and how I feed my bees pollen patties. Here’s a photo from one of my first posts about the topic, Adding Pollen Patties. The colony pictured below, by the way, is starving. Usually the way it works is the more bees above the top bars, the less honey there is in the hive (usually, not always).
I’ve written about pollen patties a bunch of times, so I’m likely to repeat myself here. Do a search of “patties” in my little search engine box up at the top for more detailed information with videos and photos and so on.