Summer beekeeping meetings are over and it’s time to get back to work. The bees have had a tough time in much of the country this summer because of adverse weather conditions, and it’s now up to beekeepers to make sure the bees get what nature hasn’t provided.
Careful examination of your colonies will show how much food they’ve actually been able to make during the honey flows so far. If you haven’t harvested honey yet your colony should have a surplus this time of year…that is, more honey stored than the colony will need to eat well all 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. I live near Cleveland, OH, and our bees typically use about 60 – 70 pounds of honey and five to seven frames of pollen between the end of October and the beginning of April. 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.
So winter preparations begin right now. Your bees may, or may not make any honey the rest of the summer and fall, but you can’t bet they will. Never, ever bet on the weather. You have to make sure. Honey, the carbohydrate part of your bees’ diet is essential, but protein is even more critical. If your bees don’t have several frames of pollen already stashed it’s going to be difficult for them to raise brood next spring when the queen begins to produce eggs again. We’ll look at how to provide protein in the next entry here.
If your bees don’t have enough honey stored it would be wise to begin feeding. In the areas of the country that have been abnormally hot and dry you can already see stressed goldenrod blooming earlier than usual. Look closely and you’ll probably note there aren’t bees on them either. This is common for stressed plants, so you can bet that the rest of the fall plants bees normally depend on won’t be providing their usual abundant crops either. If you’ve been lucky and have had moderate temperatures and adequate rain you still can’t bet on the weather for the rest of the season. If your bees don’t have enough winter food by August 15th, they won’t be able to gather enough the rest of the season. YOU have to help.
You can provide frames of honey from those that have done well to help out weak colonies. Honey is the best way to feed your colony and is always at the top of the list. However, if you don’t have that surplus to share you’ll need to get some sugar syrup on them before the end of the month. They’ll need time to take it from the container, get it reduced and then stored before it gets really cold. The usual recommendation is to mix a solution that’s two parts sugar with one part water, either weight or volume. You’ll get a nice, thick slurry with that and the bees will have no difficulty taking it or turning it into winter food. It’s not honey. I recommend that you add a bit of feeding stimulant, Honey B Healthy, or one of the many others like it on the market now. These supplements provide an attractive odor for the bees that helps them get started eating the syrup. Once started, you will be surprised how much they take.
Remember, honey is about 80% sugar, so if you need, say 50 pounds of honey to overwinter, that amounts to 40 pounds of sugar — and that’s how much sugar you will have to feed to get to that 50 pounds of food. It isn’t pounds of syrup you need, but pounds of sugar. Don’t skimp!
And don’t get me wrong here. This is winter food. Carbohydrates your bees need to survive the long winter months without incoming nectar. It isn’t honey you’ll harvest later. Winter food. Remember that.
Moreover, you have the responsibility to provide healthy food for them, just as you would your pets or other livestock. Good farmers don’t ever feel that if their animals can’t take care of themselves, then they should die. If you let you dog or cat do that…you’d be arrested. Feed your bees if they do not have enough food to get through the winter. Further, it is not the fault of the bees that you put them in a location that could not provide adequate nutrition. Be good to your bees.
Next time we’ll look at providing more protein so they can raise lots of brood next spring. Until then, keep your veil tight, your hive tool handy and your smoker lit. Winter is just around the corner.