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One thing I worry about with my hives is – do they have enough food for winter? Having a hive starve to death during the winter seems awful to me, since it is such an avoidable problem.
In my part of the Northeast, the general rule of thumb seems to be about 100 pounds of honey per hive to make it through winter. What I always have trouble with is – how do I know if they have 100 pounds?
One way is to estimate by lifting the hive – not actually trying to lift the entire thing, but lifting it from the back so it “hinges” forward on the front edge. Here is my rule of thumb — if I can’t lift a hive at all, it should be all set for winter. If I can hinge it, but with difficulty, it may need a little supplemental feeding, but it would probably be ok. If I can lift it easily, I know there is a problem. In this case, in addition to feeding I will also add another super of capped or partially capped honey that I saved from extracting.
In general, this seems to work. We have not had issues with starvation in our beeyard. However, it is not very accurate. Some beekeepers have rigged up scales, etc. that sit underneath the hive so you can always tell the weight. In our case, with 18 hives and full time jobs, we haven’t had time to do that. So this year we decided to try a new gizmo that our local bee supply company carries, Fischer's Nectar Detector. This is a handheld hive scale.
Basically, you insert an edge in the space between the hive stand and bottom board – most of our hives have an open space there for a mite board. If you do not have a space there, the company recommends inserting a couple of washers to make a small space to insert the edge of the pry bar.
You then slowly push the lever to lift the hive – just so the hive just starts to lift. A digital screen then tells you the weight of the hive. This is including the weight of everything in the hive, of course. Bees, larvae, frames, boxes, etc., but it does provide a good basis for comparison between hives. By recording the weight of the hive, you can then track how light the hive is becoming throughout the winter, in addition to comparing hives. So far, this seems to be a valuable tool!
Based on the readings, and feeling the amount of effort it took to lift the hives, we decide to begin feeding two of the hives, and will add supers of honey to two others. Hopefully this will help them to make it through the long winter.
Because I tend to be a “worrier” I take one more step to make sure the hives will make it through the winter with enough food – I place supplemental feed in the space between the frames of the top super and the inner cover. There are many ways to do this – some beekeepers make a sugar “fondant” to use, and some, like us, purchase “winter patties”. I have heard of some beekeepers placing newspaper on the frames in the top box, and pouring sugar on the top of it. As moisture rises from the hive the sugar hardens into a more solid form that the bees can use all winter. I look at these measures as “insurance”. If the bees run low on food, they have an extra source that could make all the difference.
There is one more thing I will mention that can help the bees. Throughout the winter, it is important to keep checking the weight of the hive, and the location of the cluster. Bees work their way up through the hive, consuming the honey as they go. If they are near the top, they might be running low on food. If this is the case, you may want to add some supplemental food – frames of honey if you have any, or some of the supplemental food mentioned above.
Wishing you and your bees good luck with the coming winter. Happy Beekeeping!
Jennifer Ford is a science teacher and co-owner of Bees of the Woods Apiary outside of Altamont, New York. Over the past seven years, Jennifer and her husband have expanded the apiary from two to 18 beehives, and share what they have learned about beekeeping with others through mentoring programs and presentations. Learn more about Bees of the Woods Apiary and beekeeping in general at www.BeesOfTheWoods.com or on the Bees of the Woods Facebook page. Read all of Jennifer’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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