By: Ann Harman
Well, this year’s honey crop was a bust. Rain, rain and more rain during the blooming time of this area’s major honey plants. The bees had so little flight time that a few colonies actually had to be fed. Those beekeepers who did not realize bees could weaken or starve during Spring and Summer months may well learn the hard way. Weak or dead colonies. Just not enough food to go around.
Honey is indeed a variable agricultural crop, just like corn or wheat. It is so important to realize the association of weather, plants and bees. In addition it is just as important to realize that the bees’ needs come first. After all, honey and pollen are their only nourishment. If we have chosen to be a beekeeper we must look after their needs.
Our calendars are now showing us that it is September. Although days might be lovely and warm, Winter is on its way. The bees know that. When it arrives and how ferocious it is depends on your climate. To be fair to Mother Nature, local weather conditions can modify seasonal weather.
With no surplus honey this year there are simply no frames stuck away in the freezer for emergency feed during the Winter. Therefore during the next few months careful attention will have to be paid to what the bees will be storing, how much and where they are putting it.
Autumn is the time of year that bees will be arranging their nest for the coming Winter. One of their mottoes is ‘Food above Brood.’ So as the days go from equal day/night length to shorter day hours the bees will begin storing their Winter honey from the top of their nest, moving queen and bees slowly downward.
We tend to think about stored honey as being so important for Winter survival but we need to consider pollen also. Pollen is necessary when brood rearing begins. Do you know your Autumn bee plants? If you have some pollen-producing ones your bees may collect enough to give them not only a supply to raise Winter bees at this time but also enough to give a good start to brood-rearing as the days lengthen after the Winter Solstice. Some colonies, even in a mediocre pollen-producing year, manage to stuff entirely too many frames full of pollen. So often we pay attention to the honey stores that we may overlook what the bees are doing with pollen. If you know your colonies are free of American foulbrood you can equalize pollen stores by moving frames from an overfull colony to one that seems to be low on pollen stores.
The enthusiastic collectors frequently become pollen-bound in the Spring. Bees do prefer fresh pollen so if the Spring pollen sources are rich ones, the Autumn-collected pollen may well be ignored during brood expansion. Those frames with ‘stale pollen’ (according to the bees’ palate) may well limit brood expansion. Keep that in mind next Spring.
Feeding pollen or other nutrients in patties or as a dry feed has become increasingly popular with many beekeepers. Usually the formulation is a patty that can be placed directly on the frames but there is a large plastic feeder used for a dry pollen substitute. Formulation of the patties varies so you will have to find out which one(s) you prefer – actually which the bees prefer. Some colonies seem to treat some of the patties as rubbish and diligently remove them from the hive. Check at the entrance for such debris.
If you live in small hive beetle country you may find that they love certain patties both for food and for a place to shelter and perhaps to raise more shb. So some experimentation with patties may be necessary. Check the underside of patties placed on the tops of frames to make sure the patties are not a haven for shb.
The other necessary food for Winter is honey. Some areas of the U.S. have an excellent honey flow in Autumn. Two plants are quite common throughout much of the country – goldenrod and aster. In certain places goldenrod, and to some extent aster, is removed as surplus. Both of these honeys do crystallize readily but are appreciated as a marketable crop in their area. However other beekeepers will simply leave both honeys on for Winter food.
Although some beekeepers feel that the bees may not use crystallized honey, enough metabolic water is usually available within the hive to make goldenrod and aster honeys perfectly useful. After all, some beekeepers use dry sugar or blocks of fondant as emergency food. Metabolic moisture makes those useful. If the colony is small it is possible that not enough moisture would be available. Bees do not always clean out their ‘pantry’ very well when Spring nectar arrives. Therefore, in Spring, you may well find old honey on some frames. At least the colony went into the Winter with plenty.
How much stored honey should a colony have? The amount, of course, depends on your climate. Those colonies living in the Deep South where ‘Winter’ means chilly days and cooler nights may need only about 35 pounds of honey. In the large temperate area of the U.S. a sensible amount is considered to be 60 pounds. In the cold northern states 90 pounds would be necessary.
So what do those numbers really look like? Well, a 10-frame medium honey super with all 10 frames full and capped will be a little more than the 35 pounds needed in the Gulf states. So that makes two medium 10-frame honey supers to be more than adequate for the large temperate area. One 10-frame deep box weighs about 90 to 100 pounds. Yes, these are rough figures but they can help you decide if your bees have sufficient. If you are keeping bees in eight-frame equipment or other different sizes, you do the arithmetic.
Now if you have a hive on a scale – and are keeping records – you should know how much the bees are storing during the days and weeks until Winter puts an end to the nectar plants in your area. You do know where those plants are, don’t you?
Even if you have your hive on a scale, at some point you must look inside the hive. Bees will store honey not only in the top brood chamber but also in frames along the sides of lower brood chambers. Honey does act as insulation, so the bees have figured that out. You need to look inside to make certain the colony is healthy and that the queen is present. Very early September is your last chance to unite a wimpy colony with a strong colony and eliminate the wimpy queen. The vigorous queen needs plenty of time to boost the population of Winter bees.
In many parts of the country Autumn weather is dry giving the bees good flight weather to collect nectar for the Winter stores. But what if Mother Nature decides on endless cool rainy days during the Autumn bloom time? Very little to no Winter stores of honey are being made. If you have a scale hive it may tell you that the bees are actually eating instead of collecting. If you wait too long the weather may cool down. The bees may spend more time in their cluster instead of foraging. Your goal for Winter stores will not be reached.
FEED! Feed syrup now. This syrup will be the two parts sugar to one part water, thick syrup for storage. You will find that slightly less than the full two parts sugar prevents crystals forming especially in cool temperatures.
Syrup feeders now come in as many styles as fancy shoes. Take a look through a number of different bee equipment supply catalogs. Ask beekeepers in your local club which style syrup feeder they prefer. Yes, you might get more confusing information than you want, but their comments do give you something to think about.
One important point to think about when choosing a feeder is how it will fit with your inspection of your hives. The large feeders, such as the hive top feeders that hold one or two gallons of syrup, can be heavy and awkward if full of syrup on a hive that needs inspection. You may choose to have two different styles of feeders for different situations.
No matter what style or size of feeder you choose you must keep it clean. The 1:1 sugar syrup will ferment. Any debris left in a sticky feeder may grow mold. Unwashed sticky feeders left lying around will undoubtedly attract ants and other critters. So listen to your club members and review your own methods of beekeeping before purchasing a feeder. Buy one and try it out. You might change your mind. At least a club member might buy it from you.
The big selection of hive feeders, pollen substitutes and patties has been accompanied by a large selection of nutrients to feed your bees. The various bee supply catalogs have a selection. What to feed? When to feed? How much to feed? Read the descriptions and feeding recommendations carefully, then make your decision. Oh yes – you can ask your club members. Some of these supplements are fairly new on the market so you may only get a few answers. If you do decide to use a supplement, keep some records. These can guide you in the future.
So how are your bees doing with their Winter preparations? Get out to the beeyard and look! First, stop a minute and consider the weather, not only in the past month but what are the predictions for the next few weeks. How are the Autumn flowers doing? Get out there – in a car, on a bicycle, on two feet, on a horse – and look. Now go out into the beeyard. Watch returning bees at the hive entrance – do you see any pollen coming in?
At some point, depending on your climate, you will be opening hives and taking a good look inside. Bee population – plenty of bees or a wimpy colony? Pollen stores – plenty or not much? Cells full of honey or is syrup necessary? You can run a Varroa test to see if the count exceeds the three mites per 100 bees. If it does, decide on treatment.
Will these colonies be alive and ready to work in the Spring? There is no guarantee that they will but during September you know you have done your best for Winter preparation.
Ann Harman harvests honey – when she has some – and pays attention to the plants around her home in Flint Hill, VA.