Sunday, March 16, 2008

Lesson 30: Spring Management Of Overwintered Colonies, Part I

We've had many pleasant visits to our business over the last few weeks, people buying and picking up hives and supplies and asking lots of beekeeping related question. The phone is ringing off the hook, so if you get a busy signal call back, and if you leave a message, be patient as it may take a day or two for us to get back to everyone.
We continue to be so blessed by meeting more and more wonderful people because of our bee business. Frank Schumacher has travel the farthest, all the way from Germany. Well, I don't think he came over to the US just to see me, but certainly he drove down from Chicago. He's a beekeeper in Germany and we swapped great stories, photos and practices.
We have received many phone calls and E-mails from people who have been attending bee schools and reading materials on beekeeping. This is good. However, many people have been confused over what some bee schools teach and practice that are a bit complicated and confusing. Remember, everyone in beekeeping has an opinion. It doesn't mean it is right or wrong, it just means you must remember that what works for one beekeeper may not work at all for you. He keeps his bees in a beehouse and as soon as he gets back home he'll send me some photos and I'll share them with you.
We are creating web pages with our beekeeping lessons so that they can be more easily accessed and searched, but it is a slow process. And, my wife and I have decided that we will hold our first beekeeping school here on our honey bee farm in October. Students will not only have class instructional time, but time in the field for side by side beekeeping mentoring.
Our family and friends are working very hard to keep up with the hive orders. I will be making my second trip to Liberia, Africa in just 8 days, and will be gone from March 25 through April 5, so if you try to reach me, I will be unavailable. africapreaching However, please place your confidence in speaking to my wife. She is very knowledgeable about beekeeping and can certainly answer your questions. She helps me work the bees, so she knows what she is talking about. In 2005 I led a group of adventurous people from our church into the war torn country of Liberia. Our church started an orphanage in Liberia, and while there, we walked the streets and villages and visited homes sharing the hope and love of Jesus to those who seemed to have lost all hope due to the plight of their country's enormous civil war that killed millions. Please pray for a safe and successful trip for us.
Another important work I must complete before I leave is to be sure all my hives that made it through the winter are well fed and have plenty of space for rapid spring build up. It is a challenge.
This winter, I spent much more time researching what a hive does in the winter, how they manage to survive cold weather and how the cluster behaves. I was very surprised in what I found out. Let me share with you what I have discovered and what conclusions I have drawn based on my research and how this will help you manage your overwintered colonies.
...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 up north. 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. I turn my inner cover up-side-down so that the wooden rail is down, allowing more of a gap between the frames and the inner cover to accommodate the spacing needed for the patty. I can do that in less than 30 seconds. In this photo I placed an empty deep hive body on top of the second deep, so that I can feed the bees more easily with sugar water in a jar. Then I put my top cover on top of the third deep box.
lesson28When placing the patty in the hive, LEAVE THE PAPER ON!! If you take it off, the patty will become too moist and can mold. The bees will remove the paper themselves. I know you don't like eating your cheeseburgers with the wrapping on, but the bees do!

CLUSTER SIZE is crucial for hive survivability and endurance into February and March. The colder it is the larger the cluster needs to be. lesson28b 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 be 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.
lesson2d Here is a picture of a dead 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. The queen started laying in late January or early February, as you can see the winter brood in the lower left hand corner of the frame, 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. So typical. Had I moved the honey over next to the frame with brood on it, they would have made it fine.lesson2j For example, this is what i did on on another hive. In this picture you can see how I placed a super of honey on top of the top deep hive body containing the winter cluster. You can click on the image for a larger image. Since heat rises, the top of the cluster was able to move up a bit into the super with honey temporarily to eat.
This is why beekeepers must work their hives in February. Frames of honey must be slightly scratched open and moved over next to the cluster.lesson28j DO NOT disturb the cluster, but move the frames of honey either right beside the cluster or directly above it. I placed this pollen patty on Feb. 1 and in 23 days they had consumed half of the patty.

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 for me. I place sugar water in a ziploc sandwich bag and poke three holes in the top of the bag with a needle or a pen. I don't 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. lesson2iAnd above the cluster area, it will not freeze. In one month they emptied this bag. I know you'll ask what that strip is between the bag and pollen patty so I'll tell you. It was a larger piece of comb that had honey in it. I removed it from another super and just laid it on top. On the pollen patty you can see where they have eaten the pollen beneath the paper.
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.
lesson28l A customer in Texas sent us photos of the hives he bought from us. They look great don't they! If you'd like to email us a photo of your hives in action, in your yard, we'd love to put them on our web site.
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Remember, BEE-Have Yourself!

davidsheriDavid & Sheri Burns
Long Lane Honey Bee Farms