Each spring season begins sadly with reports of failed winter colonies. It can be disheartening to visit an apiary in hopes of a successful winter only to find a dead colony after a dead colony.
Wintering bees begin the summer prior, some even claim as early as the spring prior especially if it starts from a package. Understanding summer obstacles is vital for the long-term life of a colony. One huge obstacle is a dearth. A dearth is a time of famine for a bee colony where nectar and pollen may be in limited supply. Limited supplies of forage may cause the colony to drop in population, may stop brood rearing entirely and begin to consume stored resources. A dearth is a regional issue and can vary from area to area. Some areas do not experience a dearth and are in nectar flow throughout the entire season. We are losing bees in winter because of many factors relating to summer and winter issues of neglect and poor management.
10 Points to Consider for Wintering a Colony.
1) No mite management the season prior. Mites are very successful at reproduction and can be introduced to a hive via bees simply entering the hive – friend or foe. If permitted, mites can over-populate a colony quickly and introduce virus’ and diseases. Many management techniques exist to lower mite counts.
2) Too much honey taken from the colony with not enough accessible stores in the bottom boxes. This is due to beekeepers blindly adding supers in summer without a proper inspection so they know what was under the honey super. This leads to harvesting where the beekeeper inadvertently takes all the potential winter stores.
3) Moisture in the hive during winter can kill a colony. 1-1 feed given to bees in summer can be dehydrated by the bees to a 16% or less moisture content. In fall feeding should be changed to 2-parts sugar to 1-part water with vitamin supplements of some kind. Some also add a bit of vinegar to prevent mold. Adding a moisture blanket or candy (fondant) board can reduce winter moisture. Utilizing an upper and lower entrance allows exit points and some ventilation during months when bees can fall and block a lower entrance.
4) Adding a candy (fondant) board in winter to assist a colony with less than sufficient stores. Lack of crystallized sugars may cause a situation of death by starvation during winter. Starvation is easy to identify during a spring inspection as countless numbers of bees are dead head first into cells. Adding supplements with essential oils to the candy board assists the bees in locating the resource.
5) Many beekeepers fail to understand issues related to colony absconding or swarming. An external queen and drone trap placed on a hive in late winter can prevent a colony from leaving the apiary- absconding. For the inexperienced beekeeper an over-wintered spring colony may be neglected long enough to lose huge numbers due to absconding and swarming.
6) Always remember a hive is first an incubator for bees, and if successful, a honey production plant second.
7) Not knowing what disease looks like. Most bee diseases relate to brood, so if brood is under attack then the colony’s numbers will obviously decrease. Population decrease due to a brood disease may take months to see externally and months to cure. A typical winter disease will show a spattering of bee excrement on the external entrances of the hive – called Nosema or dysentery.
8) Understanding feeding bees and adding supplements can create larger colonies and more wax. More bees, wax, and stored resources equal a stronger colony. A stronger colony can produce greater amounts of honey if foraging is available. Honey is usually the end goal for most beekeepers. If a colony has available feed but there is something better nearby the bees will ignore the feed.
9) Most beekeepers fail to know how to rear, or when to replace their queen when issues show up in summer. Issues requiring a replacement queen can be found through an internal inspection. A spotty layer or an increasing amount of discarded brood, or an underachiever based on the size of their hive may require a replacement queen. Not all issues are the queen’s fault, some issues are related to availability to needed resources. Repeatedly replacing a queen due to an area being starved for resources is your challenge. No matter how many queens you add to a colony in a poor area, limited success will result.
10) Robbing is an issue during a dearth and many beekeepers lack understanding of what it looks like until too late. Keeping a clean area around the hive is key. During summer limit the entrances to the hive so the bees can defend.
Winter failure is a result of summer neglect and poor hive and colony management.