Topical Tips – “Feeding and winter preparations” – by Malcolm Wilkie

The weather has turned unseasonably cold for this time of year. I myself have had to feed some of my hives copious amounts of sugar syrup so that they could gain weight ready for the onslaught of winter. The BBKA recommends there should be 40lbs of stores. This is for a really big box of bees and the hive, if it weighs 40lbs, will feel as if it is nailed to the hive stand. Some of you will find your site is so good that you don’t need to feed, for others the converse will be true.

Many of us have smaller units and I myself have only one or two hives that have achieved this weight!

A more accurate measure of the hive’s weight can be ascertained by using luggage scales. Lift one side of the hive with the scales and take a reading. Then lift the other side of the hive and take a second reading. Add the two figures together. Then allow for the weight of your floor, brood box and roof (if you are weighing the hive with its roof on) and this will give you a rough estimate of how heavy your hive is.

Do I do this myself? Well yes I do sometimes but I also just heft the hive. If I can lift it easily then I know I should be concerned and I proceed as follows.

In early September I feed thick syrup. If I feel the weather is not warm I might consider feeding invert sugar syrup which can either be purchased from a bee farmer or as Deborah Park pointed out to me can be made yourself by adding lemon juice to the syrup. I don’t know how to do it but she assures me it is straight forward. BUT I am keeping an eagle eye out for what the weather is doing. And unfortunately the weather is not good at present. Bees are programmed to collect and so they may well take an offering of syrup and place it into the combs in the hive. However if temperatures do not rise sufficiently then you may inadvertently create a problem for your bees. That syrup, if it cannot be converted to stores, may sit there in the frames and it may turn alcoholic. This in turn will upset the digestive system of the honeybee and nosema (a microsporidian fungus) will invade the digestive tract of the bees. This will give them a runny tummy. In the depths of winter when bees cannot get out to do cleansing flights this can cause a serious problem. Bees are designed in winter to allow faeces to build up in the abdomen and then on a warm day they will fly out and void this away from the hive. Or if you are unfortunate over your neighbour’s washing! However if nosema sets in bees have to void the faeces in the hive. Other bees then clean up the mess and the problem then worsens as this spreads nosema throughout the hive. In Spring you can tell this may be a problem as the landing board and front of the hive will be spotted with ‘bee poo’.

A word of warning however. Bees do recover from nosema particularly once the weather warms up in Spring. However hives that have suffered from nosema often have the problem of black queen cell virus. BQCV is a curse because if you are doing a split and you as the beekeeper choose to leave only one queen cell in the parent hive and that one happens to be dead, you then render your colony queenless.

So if your hive is light now you may consider your best option is to add fondant. Fondant can be purchased from a local baker if ordered in quantity but in my experience this turns rock hard more quickly than fondant purchased from a bee supplier. That makes it more difficult for the bees to use. Keith always told me that the best way of overwintering bees was to have lots of bees and stores around those bees so as to guarantee that the bees are well insulated from the cold. But fondant is definitely better than nothing else if the hive is light.

If you have wooden nationals or deep nationals your hives will also benefit from being wrapped in breathable roofing membrane. This keeps the hive dry but allows the moisture out! Remember it is not cold that kills bees (think of the temperatures in Canada over winter) but wet. Last winter proved to be particularly wet but I had wrapped my wooden hives and this kept the bees dry.

Keith also recommends using two crown boards. This is because condensation will form on the upper crownboard and drip onto the crownboard below and not onto the bees themselves!

Below are some pictures of a hive Lesley and I wrapped yesterday. Make sure you leave the entrance free for the bees to go in and out and don’t block it with the membrane!

I won’t be putting on mouse guards yet as the ivy is still in flower or coming into flower and I don’t want pollen knocked off the bees corbiculae as they enter the hive.

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Hope this helps. Bee banter tomorrow on zoom so we will all be there to answer questions.

Malcolm Wilkie – 28th September 2020

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