Small is Good

This is what I saw when I opened my hives in February during my first winter of beekeeping.

Adding a pollen patty to a very hungry colony. (February, 2011.)

Adding a pollen patty to a very hungry colony. (February, 2011.)

Those are the headlines. Now the details…

Pretty much the entire colony was clustering way above the top bars. I gave them candy cakes (in the corners) that I made by boiling up sugar and making a mess in my kitchen (the mess of it is one of the reasons why I don’t do that anymore). I also gave them some pollen patties.

This is a crazy amount of bees to see over the top bars. My colonies were like this during my first two winters of beekeeping. But I haven’t seen anything like it since.

These days, the bees don’t often come above the top bars because they still have honey down below. There’s no reason to come up. They do eventually come up, but sometimes not even until April. I love that. I make sure they have enough of their own honey or sugar syrup going into winter.

I once bought into the natural beekeeping method of not feeding the bees sugar before winter, letting them live off only pure honey they made themselves. That’s the winter I lost my first colony to starvation, and when I began to suspect that natural beekeeping is probably more of a belief system than anything else. I rarely lose a colony to starvation anymore.

I also don’t overfeed my bees like I used to. During my first two years — I’ll have to check my records, but I’m pretty sure I began dumping pollen patties on my hives by Xmas or New Years. This got the queens laying more so that by February I had hives full of new bees on the verge of starvation.

The colonies came out strong in the spring and did well for honey production (and were always on the verge of swarming), but without constant sugar feeding, they would have starved. I don’t do that anymore. Some people think giant colonies are great. I like smaller, easier to handle colonies.

I’ve gotten out of wrapping my hives. I also don’t clump my hives together for shared warmth in the winter anymore. If you’ve ever done that — put two hives together so that they’re touching each other in the winter — it’s pretty cool. The bees often create a giant cluster between the two hives, one colony clustering to the right wall of their hive and the other colony clustering to the left. A thermal image of that would be illuminating.

Because I don’t baby my bees in the winter as much as I used to, my clusters don’t eat as much honey and subsequently don’t come above the top bars once they’ve run out of honey — because they don’t run out of honey as often.

Again, the result might be slightly smaller colonies in the spring, but I think the mentality that bigger is better often takes the fun out of beekeeping. Those situations can get out of control real fast.

And that’s all I can think to say about that at the moment.

One thought on “Small is Good

  1. I have kept my bees through Winter in 3 stack 5-frame nucs for the last two years. Sometime into August I move them into the nucs. They have plenty of time to organize things. I believe they like the smoke stash effect of the nucs. I agree with your conclusions, that you don’t feed them especially. I have found my bees fill up their nuc. They do not eat as much, but I don’t have to feed either. For what it matters, I’m in Louisville, Kentucky.

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