If you’re like me, it seems like we in Texas went from Summer heat to Monsoon season, and now with the early freeze tonight – moved straight into Winter. What happened to Fall?!?
Normally, I think of having September and October to get colonies worked through and fed up so that they are fat and ready for winter by now. This year because of the relentless rain we’re behind. If like me you’re concerned that with all the rain and inclement weather your hives aren’t ready then maybe you should keep reading….
If your colonies are not currently prepared to go for the next 2-3 months living only off the in-hive stores then the next ~ 2 weeks will be critical. Optimally, one should not be feeding large quantities of syrup after the end of brood rearing, as the energy expended by bees in inverting and storing syrup with likely shorten their lifespan, and result in dwindling populations before the emergence of brood begins again next spring. However, if the risk of starvation is real, then you are better off to attempt to bolster winter stores if your colony has enough bees to make it likely that it will successfully overwinter.
So the questions become: 1) does my hive have enough honey or stored syrup to make it to spring; 2) if my colony is light and not ready for winter, how can I tell if it has enough bees to make it if I feed it, or put another way, when should you give up and not waste syrup on a hive unlikely to survive winter?; and finally, 3) how much should I feed?
Answering question 1 requires experience and data, and even beekeepers with plenty of experience can get this wrong – after all it depends to a certain extent on how long and bitter a winter it will be. I usually teach my crew that if a colony does not have the equivalent of at least 3, or better yet 4, full deep combs of honey per brood chamber then it probably needs another feeding. For a colony configured as a deep and a single 6&5/8 honey super, this means 3+ deep combs and 5-6 combs in the honey super, where 2 modified combs are =~ 1 deep This calculus changes with latitude, so it obviously needs to adjusted the farther north and the longer the winter you and your bees are likely to face. But now that winter is upon us, and temperatures are in the 30s and headed lower, it is a bad time to be going into colonies unless you have to. It is better to assess weight and feed-needs without disrupting the cluster. So another way to answer this question requires one to gauge weight, either with a scale or with a technique calibrated to allow one to get an approximate measure of weight. We use the later, and will often tip colonies up on one end and feel the mass of the colony and also how the weight and honey is distributed. It is far too easy to get fooled and open the lid on a colony, see sealed honey across the top and think everything is ok, only to discover that there was no honey down below and find the hive starving 4 weeks later. If you fashion a scale to work and lift colonies by the handholds, or from underneath then you should aim for weight of about 40-50 pounds per hive body.
On to the second question – you’ve determined that your colony needs feed but are unsure if it has enough bees that it will be likely to survive until spring. Again this is difficult to describe with clear text that is applicable in all circumstances, and a certain amount of experience goes a long way. Some general observations and rules of thumb that we employ are: a) If you do not have at least 3 combs covered in bees in each brood chamber or super, then consider knocking off one hive body or super and consolidating all remaining honey and bees in a single brood chamber; b) if there are fewer than 2.5 combs covered with bees then the probability of the colony surviving winter is reduced, but they will require much less honey to overwinter too, so don’t feed if you have 2-2.5 combs of honey or the equivalent; c) with 2 or fewer combs of bees and brood, then chances of overwintering are markedly reduced and trying to add feed is probably only going to increase the risk of mortality - exhausting the remaining bees moving and restoring syrup.
Question 3 is best answered by noting that one gallon of heavy syrup (1:1 or greater) is roughly equivalent to one comb of honey. So adjust your feeding accordingly, depending upon how much honey the colony has, and of course remembering that it will take a colony longer to take up and store syrup when temperatures are low. You only have about 2 weeks left to get the job done.
Finally, if you can, wait for a 50-degree day or warmer to go into your hives, and take care when disturbing your colony if it is colder than 60 degrees. It is much easier to accidentally mash a queen when the bees are cold and in cluster. Whatever you do, remove excluders – you don’t want the cluster to move up as stores below are depleted and leave the queen alone below.