August is a tricky month for beginning beekeepers. With many fall flowers in bloom, the field bees are still out collecting nectar and pollen and winter seems a long way off. But the last few weeks of true summer are deceptive. The nights are starting to chill down here in New Brunswick. In a healthy colony with a good queen, drone brood production will be noticeably down. You may even start to see a few drones kicked out of the hive, as the season starts to wind down.
Starvation is a major cause of winter bee losses.
The past few years here in New Brunswick, Canada, we’ve been seeing an unusual thaw in mid-December, even getting heavy rain and spring-like flooding in much of the province in December 2010. When the weather acts up like that, it fools the bees. That’s when many colonies break their cluster and the bees become more active, moving about the hive and consuming more of the stored honey than they normally would.
The result is too often that the colony runs out of easily accessible food before spring, when snow melts and temperatures rise enough for beekeepers to get in to start spring feeding.
The answer is to make sure your bees go into winter with plenty of food — both honey and stored pollen — to see them through to spring.
How much food do bees need for winter?
Unless you are in the semi-tropical or tropical regions of the country your bees should have somewhere between 50 and 100 pounds of honey safely stored away when the first signs of autumn show. The colder and longer your winter and spring, the more they will need.
Kim Flottum, the editor of Bee Culture magazine who lives near Cleveland, Ohio, says that his bees typically use about 60 – 70 pounds of honey and 5 – 7 frames of pollen between the end of October and the beginning of April. Here in New Brunswick, beekeepers often prefer to have more like 85 to 100 pounds on a colony when it gets wrapped for wintering. Obviously, the further south you go, the sooner spring comes, and bees in don’t need as much in the way of winter food stores as they do here in Atlantic Canada.
New beekeepers: do not expect to take much if any honey off your newly established colonies in the first year. That honey belongs to the bees, to help build them up for next season.
If you figure about eight pounds of honey for a deep frame mostly filled on both sides you can estimate how much honey your bees really have. A medium frame like I use holds 4+ pounds if it’s filled completely on both sides. Either way, that’s a bunch of frames of honey that the bees need. And don’t forget the pollen.
There is some controversy in warmer climates, with a longer growing season, about whether or not to feed bees. Up north here, especially if the fall honey flow is weak or we get a dry spell during the late summer and early fall, beekeepers often have no choice about whether to feed. After all, if it’s a choice between bees starving and bees surviving…
One good reason to start feeding as soon as possible after the honey harvest is because bees need time and warm temperatures to convert the sugar syrup to “honey” — this is not the real honey bees make from flower nectar and you would never harvest it for human consumption, of course, but simply the bees converting the sugar-and-water syrup into a form they can use for food.
Pollen is needed for feeding brood in the spring, so it is just as essential as honey stores for the bees. If you don’t see lots of pollen stored in the frames, consider feeding a good quality pollen substitute. And unless you are absolutely sure your bees have enough stores to get them through the winter (and then some extra, in case of a late spring), you’ll want to feed 2:1 sugar syrup as well. This is a good time to medicate against nosema as well, as you can put the medication right into the syrup.
Mother Earth News: Getting Your Bees Ready For Winter…Already by Kim Flottum