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Winter Chores

They Don’t Have Sweaters! : In the Winter, you are basically checking to make sure the sorority house is not starving. The big problem with these ‘check-ins’ is that you have to open the hive to have a look. That’s like someone coming along and pulling the roof off of your house in the cold of winter, letting all of the warm air fly right out. That’s a big problem, no matter when you do it. So, goal one is to keep the inspection quick.

The second goal (this is actually a good rule) is to open the hives as early as you can on a day that is breaking 55 degrees F.

The third goal is to never break the cluster during a Winter inspection. Some folks simply look in and do not remove a single frame.

Keep Food Close: I have read where a strong hive will die of starvation when there is honey about 3 inches from the edge of the cluster. This seems like hyperbole, but I think the general purpose of this tidbit is clear. Do not assume that a hive full of honey is not starving. To combat the bee’s proclivity to not want to move far when it is cold, it is important to inspect the frames to the outside of the cluster to make sure they have honey. If they do not, swap them around or move them down/up. Keep those honey frames close to the cluster.

There Are Few Days to Check, but they do come! : Winter is cold, but you typically always get the day or two that breaks 55 degrees. These are the days to get out and do your work. For me, this means getting everything prepped and ready to go on Jan 1 to get ready for a quick pop-check at any moment.

Don’t Worry about the Queen: This is somewhat misleading, as any hive investigation during the Winter needs to have the queen’s safety as the number 1 goal in mind. If you squash her now, there is no saving the hive (maybe you could combine it.) No queens are available to purchase and, if your gals are busy and build a new queen, there are no males around to perform their duty. So, keep her safety in mind, but do not try to find her. It does nothing but put her at risk, breaks the cluster and satisfies the beekeeper’s curiosity. It does not serve one good purpose for the hive (according to my research thus far, anyway.)

Checkerboarding: In late Winter, bees might start to  think about prepping for a swarm. It is believed that they are more likely to enter this behavior when there is a perception of a lot of stores (honey). So, if you have a deep with several full frames on top of the hive body, it is wise to checkerboard them, mixing empty frames with full (full-empty-full-empty-etc…). This gives the perception to many of the bees that stores are running low and will prevent a swarm (follow up note: when I originally wrote this, an ’empty’ frame was simply one that did not have honey in it – but, I have come to find out that a very important part of this advice is that the ’empty’ frame have drawn out comb. If it is just foundation, the bees are very likely to simply draw the comb of the surrounding frames out into this new space and create a monster mess. Fortunately, I found this tidbit in my studies and not through bad experiences!).

Some notes from a talk that Keith Tignor gave at the East Richmond Beekeeper’s Association meeting in November of 2009.

Checkerboarding explained by a student of Walt Wright’s methods

Hive Reversal: This is another option to Checkerboarding, which basically involves swapping the deeps/supers in the hive. Sometime in March or April, the main cluster should have moved into the top Deep (bees work their way up, under normal circumstances.) Like Checkerboarding, a Beekeeper can ‘reverse the deeps’ to dissuade swarming. By taking the top deep (where 90% of the bees are) and placing it on the bottom, and placing the bottom deep (which is now empty, drawn comb) on the top, the bees will have a lot of empty space to fill, which should reduce the swarming instinct. Try not to do a reversal if a long cold snap or several days of rain are due in the next 10 days.

Hive Cleaning : When doing a reversal, it is the perfect time to clean up the wooden-ware.

  • Take out all of the frames and inspect each one, cleaning off bur comb and propolis
  • Scrape the sides of the box
  • Clean the bottom board

Feeding Pollen : The Winter months are all about temperature and food. Everyone knows about honey. The honey bee stores a lot of it for the Winter months and we humans love to harvest any excess that we can. But, little is said about Pollen. In fact, most folks that I talk to are surprised to hear that the honey bee stores pollen at all. Little do they know, but it  is a crucial part of their diet.

While honey provides the carbs, pollen provides the protein. It is this protein that is a critical component of royal jelly, a rich substance that all bees receive during the first day or two of their lives. Since it is such an important part of rearing brood, it is very important to have a good supply on hand when the honey bee enters the ‘ramp up’ phase of late Winter. For me, this happens sometime between late January and early March. The bottom line is that pollen needs to be available to allow for the early hive growth for the year. Thus the need for pollen substitute.

Pollen substitute can be a valuable resource for the hive that did not do a great job of storing a lot of pollen for the Winter months. It can be a safeguard for all hives. The key with these patties is to make sure they are placed directly above the brood nest. The nurse bees will not go far to get the protein, so placing the patties in odd spots around the hives is often non-productive.

Basic Feeding Rules : The very first nectar collected is very thin in sugar collected, the beekeeper can really get the worker bees excited about “spring is almost here” by feeding the bees thin (1:2) sugar syrup (1 pound of sugar in 2 pints of water), and a pollen substitute like BeePro in January and early February, and then switch to 1:1 sugar syrup (1 lb. sugar in 1 pint of water) in mid February.

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