Virginia Beekeeping in January 2015

Virginia Beekeeping in January 2015

I absolutely love checking on the bees, but before we check the hives mid-winter my emotions are a trainwreck. I am nervous to see what might be going on but so excited to visit with my little bees.

Over the summer, we maintain the hives monthly and we last looked into the hives this past fall. During the winter, on a warm (40 F or above), sunny day, we like to quickly peek in the hives to make sure everything looks okay.

This year was rewarding. We saw live bees in the majority of our hives (even the split!) and so far have only lost one hive. In the lost hive, we did not see a lot of dead bees so it seems they just packed up and moved on. Beekeeping can be rough.

The bee-less hive just mentioned was a very productive hive. Too many full frames in a hive can cause congestion and encourage swarming. Maybe the queen decided there was not enough room for laying. If she packed up on a warm day and left behind a small group, they could have perished when a cold spell hit.

When it is cold, less than 57 F, the bees form a cluster inside the hive. In the cluster, the bees remain active, eating, moving, rearing young, and generating heat by contracting their wing muscles (shivering). A hive’s temperature can range from 57 F to 93 F depending on the activities of the bees.

Once it warms up to temperatures over 57 F, the cluster can break apart and the bees move honey around or relocate their cluster closer to stored honey. On these warm days, the bees will also take cleansing flights, which allows them to clean the hive and relieve themselves.

As the cluster of bees progresses through the winter, they move upward through the hive eating their stored food. Sometimes, the bees move up too fast, reach the top, and run out of food. This can occur even when a hive has plenty of honey to the sides and below the cluster. To help the bees out, we put sugar patties (see the recipe below) at the top of the hive on the frames, under the inner and telescoping covers, to give them some much needed food.

Cluster of bees near top of hive Sugar patty ready for the cluster to consume

Bee Patty Recipe (with pollen)

  • 1 part 1:1 sugar syrup
  • 6 parts white granulated sugar
  • 2 parts pollen or pollen substitute (amount varies depending on what type is used)
  • Mix the syrup and sugar. Add pollen until the mixture reaches a dough-like consistency. Form into patties.

Bee Patty Recipe (without pollen)

  • 10 lbs white granulated sugar
  • 1 cup water
  • Mix well. Make slabs on plastic wrap. Let sit, they will be hard the next day. Remove plastic when adding the sugar to the hive.

We form any extra into patties, wrap them in wax paper, and freeze them. To use, we defrost the patty completely to avoid adding extra moisture to the hive. Bees have a difficult time removing moisture from the hive when it is cold. We put the patty on a piece of wax paper and then place it in the hive.

Some beekeepers like adding pollen to the winter feed and others do not. The bees use pollen as their protein source, which is necessary for the production of bee bread (food for little growing bees). We live in a pollen-rich area, so the bees should have collected enough throughout the year, but we like to play it safe. We add it to the patties and plan to continue until we notice a problem. Small hive beetles are attracted to pollen so we keep an eye on that.

We also use old frames with honey to add food to the hives. For the same reason, we make sure that any frozen frames are thawed completely and we add them to the box near the cluster, being careful not to break the cluster up.

For any of our deadouts, we block the entrance until we can clean up the hive properly. This prevents the emtpy hive from getting robbed of any leftover honey, which allows us to reuse the stored food if the colony didn’t succumb to disease.

Like I said, this hive inspection went well but we are not completely in the clear yet. The next couple of months are tricky and hard on the bees. The inconsistent weather here in Virginia can confuse bees. Sometimes it is warm during the day and freezing at night and the bees do not have enough time to cluster.

We will keep watching them and the weather and try our hardest to help them enter into spring healthy. Check back for more bee updates!

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