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  • Chris Kelly

Winter Feeding

Updated: Jul 5, 2021

What North Fork beekeepers should do in February.

When February rolls around here in the northeast, the winter cold has been with us for a while. The bees have been surviving on the last year’s stores for almost four months, and still have two months to go before spring starts to push the flowers from the soil. The very cold temperatures also restrict both the hive’s flight time and cluster movement.

What beekeepers can do during this backend of winter is a very quick “top check” of their hives. Remove both the outer and the inner cover, and look to see where exactly, at which level, the bees are within the hive. This brief visual check should take no more than thirty seconds because you do not want to disrupt the cluster of bees. If they break cluster now, in the cold, they will die. The information gleaned from this glimpse, is invaluable, because the location of the cluster tells the beekeeper a lot.

In general, the lower the cluster, or the closer to the bottom it is, the more honey remains for the hive. The movement of the winter cluster is almost always upwards. They may do some lateral re-positioning as temperatures allow (over 45 degrees). This is why the beekeeper does his best to have the brood chamber in the lowest super in the fall, with most of the honey/pollen stores above the brood chamber.

For example, if the hive is in the bottom deep (a beekeeping term for the size of the box), it still has the entire second deep of honey in reserve. Armed with the knowledge that bees will move upward within the next seven to ten days, this tells the beekeeper that the hive has enough food for the next six to eight weeks. Only then will the beekeeper need to provide supplemental feeding. If the bees are found right at the top emergency winter feeding needs to happen immediately.

If your bees are in trouble, if you think they are going to starve, an easy solution is to place a sheet of newspaper over the top bars of where the bees are. Place an empty shallow super on that, and then pour about 5-lbs of dry sugar onto the paper. Monitor bi-weekly to make sure they haven’t eaten all the feed.

When I see bees on the verge of starvation by February I ask myself these three questions:

1. Did I remove too much honey from them during the summer so they ran short?

2. Did I incorrectly evaluate how much honey/pollen they were storing or using during the fall?

3. Might this be the genetics of the hive? Their “rate of burn” or consumption of food stores may be excessive, often a tell-tale sign of a larger than expected amount of fall brood. Brood rearing consumes food stores. (We cover supplemental feeding and its do’s and don’ts in a future post.)

The second aspect of every chilly February that vexes local beekeepers is that the two main drivers of bee population dynamics — temperature and light — now work against each other. The length of daylight and its intensity increases by two minutes a day, while the temperatures often drop to the coldest each winter. And, in the midst of all of this, the bees have begun to rear their young. Ah, the promise of Spring!

Finally, the bees that have carried the hive this far through winter, have begun to reach the end of their lifespan. Remember the normal lifespan of the summer bees is only six to eight weeks, whereas the winter bees live for four to six months. We now count the days until first flight of the bees is recorded, until the first pollen is harvested, and the new year begins.

Master Beekeeper, Christopher Kelly earned a BS in Entomology and his master beekeeping certification at Cornell University. Since 1986 he has been nurturing learners in the art and science of beekeeping in the Long Island context. As a committed educator, he has reached a broad spectrum of beekeepers, from novice to the advanced. His depth of experience at both the hobbyist and professional levels gives Chris a unique ability to address the concerns of both.

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