January 24

Lesson 17-A Preparing Your Over-Wintered Hive for Spring

…that working bees when it is at least 30 degrees Fahrenheit can be successful if done very quickly, within a minute or two.
…that the cluster size is critical to colony survivability.
…that we cannot afford to winter our bees with bees that emerge in August. Bees that emerge in October and November are essential to maintain cluster longevity and endurance into February and March.
…that bees protecting January and February brood will not leave that brood in cold weather and feed on nearby honey. They will die before traveling a few frames over to the food source.
…that bees need pollen patties no later than Feb 1st.
…that it is very effective to place pollen patties and sugar water directly above the winter cluster.

Traditionally, beekeepers are told that as long as the hive has 80 pounds of honey, they’ll make it through winters.  And, that’s about all beekeepers have done, left plenty of honey in the hive and maybe wrapped some roofing paper around the hive, and accept the fact that there is always a 20-50% expected loss.

To me, that’s a bit lazy. To do so little, and settle for such losses is unacceptable to me. My bees are worth more than that to me, and I don’t mean financially, but these are my bees that I have been entrusted to care for. Surely I can do better than this. That’s why I put extra time in research and monitoring my hives this winter.

Beekeepers often lose hives that have plenty of honey and they usually guess as to why they died with plenty of food. They will say that maybe the Tracheal mites got ’em or maybe the queen died in the fall or maybe it was just too cold or too wet or they had Nosema. Certainly these are possibilities. However, many winter deadouts are caused from poor management…pilot error that could have easily been avoided.

I believe we should work our colonies as soon as we can. Pollen patties should be placed in our hives no later than February 1st. Pollen patties will stimulate the queen to start laying more, while providing the bees some nutrition. Even when it is cold outside, we can quickly open our hives on the warmest day in January with no wind and slide a pollen patty over the top of the winter cluster. lesson2c See this photo of a winter cluster in one of my hives. This is the top of the cluster in the second deep hive body. Then, I simply slide in a pollen patty and let it sit on the top of the frames right above the cluster.

Since last week I have learned it is best to LEAVE THE PAPER ON!! If you take it off, the patty can become too moist and can mold. The bees will remove the paper themselves.   While we do not enjoy eating cheeseburgers with paper on them…bees do!  I have been placing these on your hives as I have inspected them this winter.  We placed another on your hive when we inspected together last week (those of you who met with me to do so).

Counting shipping I have have $100 invested in this effort and will welcome any contributions from you to help defray the cost.  Since there are 5 of us I am asking each person to contribute $20 toward this effort.



CLUSTER SIZE is crucial for hive survivability and endurance into February and March. The colder it is the larger the cluster needs to be.  That’s why hives die in March. Naturally, the cluster is very small in March, and if there is a severe cold snap, a very small cluster cannot stay warm. This cluster is probably not going to make it. They are too small because the queen stopped laying early, probably in August or September and the bees simply died of old age reducing the number in the cluster. We must work our hives in the fall so that the queen continues to lay into October and November. Again, the easiest way to do this is to feed the hives pollen patties and 1:1 sugar water.
Then, people will ask, “But a larger cluster means they will consume more food and possibly starve”.

Again, what good is it to have a small cluster and 80 pounds of honey and the small cluster dies and the honey is not consumed at all? Take a large cluster of younger bees into winter and if they consume their 80 pounds of honey by February 1, it doesn’t matter because you can beginning feeding them pollen patties and sugar water. They’ll stay warm with plenty of food. Remember, the cluster generates the heat.

Last year I had a hive that was doing well in early February but died after a very cold snap in late February. They still had 50 pounds of honey three frames over and more above them.  The queen started laying in late January or early February, but the cluster was too small. As a result, the small cluster made one last ditch effort to keep the brood warm, yet were unable to move vertically over to the frames with honey. If they had, they would have become paralyzed by the cold and died away from the cluster and the brood would have died as well. They froze and starved with 50 pounds of honey five inches away.

Sadly, this is is more typical than it should be.. Had I moved the honey over next to the frame with brood on it, they would have made it fine.  (This is why we were shifting full frames of honey toward the middle during our inspections last week.  We placed AP23 pollen patties on our hives as well last week.

Another effective way to help the bees along is to give them sugar water, 1:1 ratio. This is a bit more tricky, because water will freeze during the winter. I found one method that works great according to a local beekeeper.  He places sugar water in a ziploc sandwich bag and poke three holes in the top of the bag with a needle or a pen. He does not want the water to drip out, but just make a very small pool on top of the bag. As the bees move onto the bag, more sugar water comes out  above the cluster area, it will not freeze. He says in one month they emptied this bag.
Once we begin feeding our bees pollen patties and sugar water, it is best to continue until natural pollen and nectar is available. If we stop feeding, then the queen would have laid lots of eggs, but there would be no sources of pollen and nectar to raise her young. You’ve fooled her in the worst way. She’s a good momma. She will not have kids unless she knows the colony can feed them. If you tell her you’ll do the providing until spring comes, then keep your commitment to her and her daughters.

Once nature starts producing nectar and pollen you can discontinue feeding both sugar water and nectar on over wintered colonies. However, in newly installed packages you must continue feeding sugar water, 1:1 for as long as they still have comb to draw out. They turn sugar water into wax for the building of their comb. But on over wintered colonies, their comb is already built out from last year. This is why second year hives produce more honey. Incoming nectar can be stored, not converted to wax.

That’s enough for today…In our next lesson I’ll give you more tips on what to do with your over wintered hives as spring approaches.
(Lesson 17-B). I begin Gaston County Bee School next week, January 30.  So far none of you have contacted me about being able to go.