It is usually a good idea to pick one of more mild fall days to work through your colonies to make sure they are ready for winter and early spring.Of course the length of time that your colonies will need to live off stored honey or syrup will depend upon latitude and elevation, and if left to their own devices, and assuming adequate sources of nectar are available then our bees are really good at setting themselves up for successful overwintering.
Unfortunately, there are often situations that keep bees from taking care of winter preparations by themselves, and good beekeepers will work through their colonies in the late fall to assure that everything is set.If you find that your colonies need help after evaluation then be prepared to take measures to solve whatever problems may be present, whether it is provision of syrup or reducing entrances or something else.
So on to what to do and how to do it….
First, it is important to understand a few basic facts about how and why colonies use honey resources.Of course honey is the source of food and energy that the colony has access to in times when there are no nectar sources available – and winter and early spring are the most significant and prolonged dearth period that colonies encounter in most parts of the world.Colonies use honey to generate heat and they thermoregulate the interior of the hive, particularly the center of the cluster and the brood nest, when brood is present.When there is no brood present – and in most parts of North America hives exhibit broodless periods – bees will only keep the center of the cluster in the 50s or 60s, or sometimes even as low as the 40s.Conversely, when brood is present then bees will do everything they can to keep all brood at or above 90 degrees Fahrenheit.It is also important to remember that colonies with large numbers of adult workers can thermoregulate much more efficiently and consistently than colonies with a smaller mass of adult bees, and individual adult workers will not have to work as hard to keep the cluster warm.Likewise, larger colonies with more bees will more quickly take up, invert and store syrup, and the physiological toll and reduction of adult life span will intensify when the colony mass is smaller and individual bees have to work harder to invert and store syrup
The practical consequences of these factors is that most hives will not consume honey rapidly during periods without any or much brood, but will consume huge amounts of honey once there are significant numbers of comb with brood present.For beekeepers this means that colonies do not require a large amount of honey to survive winter, but they can quickly starve once brood rearing begins unless they have adequate reserves of honey or they receive feed before they run short of energy.Similarly, the challenges for small colonies with lower adult bee mass will be more severe, and the likelihood of colonies surviving winter is inversely correlated with number of adult workers present.
Now let’s consider application of this knowledge to assessment of colony conditions and determination of whether or not to feed, and if so, how much to feed.
Gauging colony stores can be done several ways, but though physical inspection of the interior of the colony and evaluation of the number of comb equivalents of stored honey is the best way, the faster method is to simply estimate the weight the colony.Remember, one need not put the colony on a scale to do so, because simply tipping the hive forward or back can yield a good estimate of the weight of the colony, and is even a better method of comparative evaluation of colony weight among various hives in the apiary.
For colonies configured as double deeps, I recommend feeding to get them through winter and into early spring if there are 6 or fewer mostly full combs of honey present in the hive, or translating that to weight, feed if the colony as a whole weighs 40 pounds or less, plus the weight of whatever empty equipment and comb is present.For a one story colony, feed if there are 4 combs or fewer of honey or a weight of 30 pounds or less.Recall that it doesn’t take that much honey to get colonies through winter but any remaining honey will be consumed quickly once brood rearing begins again.Plan accordingly, and modify the recommendations above by 2 or more combs of honey if you will not be able to work through and feed your colonies again between the end of January and the middle of February (for central Texas) or adjust the dates later by two weeks to two months as you move further north.
The amount of syrup you feed should be enough to allow your colonies to move to or near the target weight, and one gallon of thick syrup is approximately 10 pounds of honey. For example,using an ini hive frame feeder that holds a gallon of syrup will require 2 feedings to gain 20 pounds of weight.
Now a word of warning, these estimates are based upon full strength colonies that are overwintering with 15,000 – 20,000 bees or more.Smaller colonies will need less to make it through winter, and feeding small colonies lots of syrup – more than they need or can use or process quickly, will further erode adult bee populations in a weak hive, and reduce adult lifespans, and contribute to an increased risk of colony mortality.In other words, more is not always better, and it is possible to overfeed colonies, particularly weak ones.Going further, it also possible to overfeed even strong hives, and you never want to completely pack the brood nest with honey or stored syrup.Clusters do better during winter if they can hang on empty comb or comb with cells filled with pollen, and having empty comb and stored pollen is very important once queens resume laying in the spring.If there is no empty comb for queens to begin laying in then colony growth will be stunted and colony populations will be much smaller, all other things considered, if brood rearing is delayed because a queen is honey-bound.
Finally, when working colonies in preparation for winter and spring, avoid instigating robbing at all costs.Robbing can quickly wreck an apiary in the fall, and it is easy to provoke robbing by spilling syrup, failing to work quickly and leaving honey exposed, or feeding in open containers exposed to access by all foragers – both from all colonies in your apiary and any feral colonies that may be present.
Is sum, colonies that are correctly provisioned with the correct weight to bee ratio and sufficient open comb to enable rapid expansion in the spring will turn stored honey and syrup to bees once spring is here.That of course is the ultimate objective of managing colonies for overwintering success – help them grow quickly in spring so that there are ample populations to take advantage of early spring pollen and nectar flows.