Damp Winter Hive = Slow Spring Build-Up

This is a 9-minute video of me talking in my beeyard about some things I’ve noticed after my first hive inspections this year.

Some of those things are: Left over moisture from the winter, poorly-fitting hive components, reading the brood pattern on medium frames instead of my usual deep frames, and the possibility of harvesting honey in the spring instead of the fall.

I dive deeper into all of this in the following summary of the video:

00:00 — Introduction to an all-medium hive.

Reading the brood pattern for the first time in a medium seems slightly different from what I’m used to seeing on deep frames.

01:30 — Moisture getting into the hives.

Moisture probably seeped in through cracks in my homemade bottom boards and other hive components that don’t leave a good seal.

02:35 — The benefit of early hive inspections.

Even if it’s cold in the spring, early hive inspections allow me to address any moisture issues that I might not have been able to prevent during the winter. This kind of dampness in the hive can leave some comb, including honey comb, wet and gooey, and the bees often won’t go near it. The dampness seems to make them sickly. It’s not the dry clean environment that the queen needs to become healthy and robust. The dampness seems to really knock them back.

03:50 — A crack between defective supers.

The gap between the supers allows moisture (e.g., rain and snow) to seep in over the winter. Many of my hives are like this (i.e., full of gaps and cracks) because I’ve built up my beeyard up bit by bit over the years, sourcing my supers from different suppliers, and everyone seems to make their supers with slightly different measurements. Some are 2 or 3 millimetres too long or too short. The side pieces when attached to the front and backs don’t always create a flat top edge. One of the edges will be lower or higher by a millimeter or two, which creates a wide crack down the whole length of the super as shown in the above video link.

Some colonies will fill in these gaps with propolis and create an excellent seal (one good reason not to scrape away propolis), but sometimes they don’t.

I’m looking for a cheap clay-like material that I can smear into the cracks when the bees don’t fill them in with propolis. It’s a problem. Not so much in the summertime, but in the winter when the bees can’t do anything but huddle in a ball to stay warm, yeah, it’s a big problem.

05:50 — Review of beeyard health.

Hive #12 (or queen 12; I only have eight hives) is in particularly great shape.

06:20 — Thoughts about harvesting honey in the spring for now.

Many of my colonies came through winter with plenty of honey left over, and that’s after I harvested a medium or two of honey from them last fall. If I skipped the fall harvest, I wouldn’t have to concern myself with feeding syrup in the fall. Then when I got around to harvesting honey in the spring, I would know it’s all pure honey, with no risk of any syrup showing up in any of the frames. In this way, except for things like raising nucs, I could avoid syrup altogether. Which I would love.

I’m not convinced at all that sugar syrup is the evil that some beekeeping ideologies make it out to be. Of course honey is usually better for my bees (though not always*), but if I don’t have honey, I won’t let my bees starve just to maintain a belief system that prevents me from feeding them sugar.

In any case, one less beekeeping chore is always a win for me. I know I’ve said that before, but it’s one of my greatest motivations. Every single task involved in my beekeeping is done solely by me. I don’t mind having less to do.

07:50 — Explanation of a hive reversal, sort of.

08:20 — A well over-wintered colony.

Well-wintered for my local climate and my methods, that is. No wrapping. No insulation. Just a dry hive and a tonne of honey to keep them warm and fed for the winter.

* Here’s a situation in which feeding honey bees sugar is often better than feeding them honey. It’s easier for the bees to hold in their poop when there are fewer solids in their digestive tract. At some point in the winter when it’s too cold for the bees to get out for cleansing flights, they may have to hold it in longer than normal. Too long, and they get sick and often perish. If we can reduce the amount of solids in their digestive tracts during these extended cold periods when they really need to go outside to poop, it gives them a better chance of surviving those extended freezing winter days — because they can hold their poop in longer without getting sick. This is when sugar saves the day.

Processed granulated white sugar contains virtually no solids of any kind (usually about a 0.015% ash content), whereas raw honey contains about 40 times as much solids (averaging around 0.6% ash content). That’s why some honey bee colonies fed sugar syrup or dry sugar during the winter often have a higher survival rate than colonies fed only their own honey over the winter. Sugar let’s them hold their poop in longer during unusual long cold spells. These long cold spells don’t happen every winter in my local climate, but they can happen. Hence, hurray for sugar.

Imagine having a glass of water with breakfast and not being able to use the washroom until you went to bed that night. You wouldn’t like it, but you could probably manage it. Now imagine if you had 40 glasses of water with breakfast instead and weren’t allowed to use the washroom until later that night. You probably wouldn’t make it, would you? That’s a slightly exaggerated version of what it’s like for a honey bee to get through an extended cold snap when they’ve got a gut full of honey instead of sugar syrup.

Sugar syrup might not be natural, but maybe keeping non-native honey bees in a cold damp climate on an island in the freezing North Atlantic Ocean where they naturally would have never evolved isn’t natural either. Maybe?

In any case, there are times when sugar is the best thing you can give to honey bees in cold climates.