January checks – are the bees still alive?

As I said in my previous post the winter months are pretty quiet for the bee keeper. So long as you have taken the time to ensure that the hives were fed syrup at the end of the summer and each now have enough stores to feed them over winter, have a healthy laying queen and are as disease free as possible then it is a bit of a waiting game to see if they survive the colder months or not.

The bees are now clustering around the queen in the hive, keeping the temperature at 34 degrees. They do not keep the hive at this temperature but the brood area is kept this warm. The queen will have started laying again somewhere around Christmas day so now is far more critical to the colonies survival than earlier in the winter.

On warmer days occasionally bees can be seen leaving the hive and travelling a short distance before returning. With a lack of forage these flights are purely for defecation purposes so it is best to avoid the flight path!

Bees leaving the hive for defecation flights

It is re-assuring for the bee keeper to see his bees are still active and alive. Gently rocking the hive or knocking on its side will respond in a gentle roar from the bees, another sign that they are still alive. If the returned noise is more like a groan or moan it is likely that the colony is without a queen and therefore unlikely to survive the winter.

It is important for the bee keeper to remove the mouse guards and clear the dead bees from the entrance during the winter. The bees are very efficient at cleaning the hive to remove the risk of disease during the summer months but this becomes increasing difficult during the winter with less bees to perform the task and a large perforated strip of metal across the hive entrance (the mouse guard!). A long bladed screw driver is perfect for scrapping out the dead bees from the hive floor – this is perfectly natural!

Winter checks on the colonies

Winter checks onthe hive - a little assistance required

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Whilst there is no brood in the hive the bees are very inactive, they do not need to generate as much heat and they consume very little stores (with no young to feed). As soon as the queen starts to lay again the bees will start to slowly move across the frames and access the honey and pollen that they stored up in the summer months and use as much as 4 to 6 times the amount as they did before. They tend to access only the frames that are immediately adjacent to, or above, the brood so it is not uncommon for a hive to starve whilst they still have adequate honey supplies stored in the hive. It is also possible for a colony to have adequate stores that have hardened and crystallised and therefore the bees are unable to ‘dilute it’ and remove it from the cells.

It is important for the bee keeper to be aware of the amount of supplies within each hive but it is not really acceptable to open the hives for more than a few minutes during the colder weather without the risk of chilling, and therefore killing, the brood.

Traditionally the beekeeper would ‘heft’ the hive on its stand to try and assess the amount of stores left and a hive at this time of year will still require about 25 kg. If the winter has been particularly cold and it is possible that the bees may have consumed a greater amount of the honey stored you can supplement the feed with bee candy or fondant. This is made by boiling 2kg white granulated sugar in  1 pint of water and bringing it up to 117 degrees. The resultant candy will store for several months when wrapped in plastic and can be feed direct to the bees either over a feed hole on the crown board or direct across the frames. It is far more common for the bees to starve in February and into early March as the hives consumption increases with no way of replenishing the stores.

  • Bee candydy over the feed hole on the crown board
  • Feeding the colony at this stage will also help promote egg laying in the queen and therefore get your colony size building up prior to the spring nectar flow arriving and making sure the colony is strong and ready to forage when it does. – this can make all the difference to the size of the honey crop come August.

    Now is also the time to organise your bee keeping equipment before the start of the next season. New equipment can be ordered (many suppliers have sales over the winter months) and old equipment can be repaired and re-treated before being put back into the elements.

    Organising equipment before the summer season

    Finally you can retire back into the warmth, happy that your bees have survived this far into the year and hoping that they make it out again in the spring ahead.

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