Beekeeping Tips and Tricks: Winter Feeding and Survival

Posted 03/17/2021 BY Donald Vincent

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As essential workers, our beekeepers have been hard at work setting up equipment to prepare new clients for package installs and checking on living colonies to see how they’ve progressed throughout the chilly, winter months. Honeybee colonies that survive the winter, or as beekeepers say, “overwintered” colonies, make up about 40-60% of beehives nationally. 

The Best Bees cycle 10 experience is the last phase of our beekeeping calendar, marking our last chance for winter feeding and to inspect and clean out colonies that have not survived. While our process may differ from backyard beekeepers, there are still many similarities. Continue reading to learn more about our feed supply and hive assessment best practices during the winter period.

In order for us to understand what makes bees hardy and survive the winter, this late-winter assessment is fundamental for research purposes. For example, colonies flagged for Grafting and Splits will show a high likelihood of overwinter survival, hygienic behavior, high honey production, and a calm demeanor.

Honeybees responding to their winter feeding
Honeybees in late winter after a winter feeding

Supplying Feed to Bees during the Winter

Bees live off of a finite storage of honey during the winter. Many colder climate areas are without the plants and flowering blooms that provide nectar for the bees. To counter this, we feed low-resource colonies during the winter months to avoid the starvation of the colonies. These winter checks are brief to minimize the exposure of cold air that could possibly damage the cluster. 

Because bees consume food faster closer to spring, our research has shown that the best way to support living colonies and bees coming out of the winter is through winter feeding, pollen patties, boosts, and adding splits. It is important to supply feed to bees so they do not starve before the nectar flow begins. 

Winter Feeding Methods

There are many ways to feed a beehive in the winter:

  • Pollen patties: a pollen substitute that stimulates brood production.  
  • Heavy stickies: sharing frames from neighboring beehives that are rich with resources including netcar, pollen, and honey.
  • Honey-board: a unique method of feeding to the Best Bees Company. It’s where we essentially lay a blanket of honey on wax paper coated in sugar on top of the hive’s inner-cover.

Approaching Hives in the Field

When assessing a hive during the winter, there are a few things to consider when approaching the hive. We routinely look for and recommend keeping an eye out for the following signs of beehives that are alive:

  • bees flying close by (unlikely during very cold days)
  • melted snow around the hive (the heat of the cluster can melt surrounding snow, especially at the entrances)
  • dysentery streaks (bees relieve themselves over the side of the hive to avoid soiling their living space)
  • fresh dead bees on the landing board or ground in front of the hive (this is an indication that workers have been dragging out their dead even in winter).
Snowdrops provide the first bit of pollen and nectar for beehives that survived the winter in colder climates

Checking Live Hives during the Winter

This is a crucial period of time for survival and the colony should be disrupted as little as possible. Below are the Best Bees methodology for checking a live hive:

  1. Before you open the hive, feel the weight of the hive by gently lifting from the back of the bottom board. If it feels lighter than desired, prepare to feed. 
  2. Assuming weather conditions are acceptable, gently lift the top cover only (leaving inner cover in place) and check for life through the hole in the inner cover and by listening.
  3. If alive and the hive feels light or the bees are right at the top, lay a honey board on top of the inner cover. Using a hive tool, gently poke a hole through the middle of the honey-board and into the hole in the inner cover, creating access for the bees to feed.

Note: if temperatures are warm enough, you may be able to open the hive up a little more. In this case, consider adding heavy stickies for the bees to enjoy.

  1. Place the top cover back on, making sure not to obstruct existing ventilation. This is a good time to make sure it is still properly ventilated.  
  2. Clear fallen bees from the bottom entrance so that they can continue to remove dead bodies and make cleansing flights.  

Overwintered beehives can be hard to spot! Before you clean out a hive you deem dead, make sure you are certain. Here are some tips to help. 

  • If the cluster is motionless, remove some bees from the outside of the cluster and try warming them up in your hands. If they don’t revive, the colony is most likely dead. 
  • Bees with their tongues out can be an indication that they are dead.
Best Bees Head-Beekeeper Shay installing new equipment

Preparing for New Installs 

When we visit a new client to install equipment during cycle 10, we consider the following points for beehive location on site: 

  • Flight path not facing direct human activity
  • Avoid areas that will become overgrown or shaded with vegetation. This is hard to tell during the winter, but it is important to keep in mind. 
  • No ladders for access to beehive (too dangerous)
  • Avoid damp areas
  • Try to face the beehive towards the sunlight
  • Consider a windbreak if windy. 

Countdown to Spring

When we return to our hives, spring will be upon us. We’re looking forward to installing new colonies and making sure our overwintered colonies are on track for another successful and bountiful harvest season. 

We aim to track hygienic behavior in beehives closely as the year progresses. We’ll do this in our various research apiaries and queen rearing apiaries. Doing so will help us to determine what behaviors and signs make for a strong colony that is likely to survive the winter.  As always, we’ll record this information in Bzzz, our proprietary hive management system.

Come back and visit the Best Bees blog next week for a deeper dive into the genetics that make for a hearty colony, capable of surviving the winter.

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