I will write about feeding bees sugar and pollen substitutes in late winter and early spring. It’s very much a ‘beekeeping is local’ situation; timings vary from region to region and from year to year.
We had mild weather recently, but we are back to typical January temperatures with a bit of sleet and snow thrown in. I noticed a flurry of ‘check your bees – they may need feeding’ messages during the mild weather. I’m not sure how a week or two of mild weather can cause colonies to starve. Nevertheless, it’s good practice to occasionally check on the weight of hives (regardless of the weather). Mostly I do checks after high winds – more to ensure lids are still on, but also I check weights whilst I’m there.
If colonies have low stores in January, something has gone wrong. There are several possible reasons:
1) the beekeeper took their honey away and did not feed them enough syrup in autumn
2) the beekeeper fed them syrup in autumn, but wasps or bees from elsewhere snuck in and robbed them before it got cold
3) the bees went on a crazy brood-rearing spree late into the autumn, resulting in the consumption of most stores early on
The solution to all of these is to feed a massive slab of fondant and add more when they have eaten it until a nectar flow starts in spring. A big piece of fondant goes right across the tops of most of the frames, so you need an eke or spare super to go on top so that the roof fits. The more fondant you feed, the less often you have to come back and add more. Putting it directly on the frames makes isolation starvation less likely. Each to their own, though.
Item (3) above most likely occurs when the beekeeper feeds pollen subs in autumn to stimulate brood rearing, which isn’t a UK thing as far as I know.
Bees can starve even when they have plenty of stores if they are a small colony and the cluster cannot move to the food due to low temperatures. That’s not a food problem; they should have been merged with another hive or shaken out back in September. I take quite a few nucs into the winter, which tend to be smaller colonies. They are in poly nucs, which seems to help them keep warm enough to wander about as needed.
I’m lucky enough to have bees near Himalayan balsam plants that provide food into September. If I remove honey in August, the larger colonies usually collect plenty of nectar from balsam which means I don’t have to feed so much, if at all. It does mean that I lose some honey crop, but that’s not a problem for me. I prefer to get varroa treatments into the hives by late August so that mites and viruses do not hinder the winter bees laid in September/October.
The feeding of carbohydrates (syrup or fondant) is straightforward. If you get it right in the autumn, you don’t have to worry about it until spring. If you get it wrong, fondant should save the day. But what about pollen? In my area, there is rarely a shortage of pollen. It can happen if we get a long dry spell in the summer (drought) or a long, brutally cold time in spring. As a beekeeper, it’s good to know about the sources of forage in my area, along with expected timings.
Charts from weatherspark.com
In the charts below, the red line indicates the period when bees can fly, and the green one shows when it’s warm enough for them to be ‘busy’ and able to bring in a honey crop. The main difference between 2020 and 2021 was that we had a cold and miserable May last year, which led to many unmated queens – virgins just sat in their boxes, eventually becoming drone layers.
From a feeding bees perspective, it’s interesting to look at the chart below, which shows the growing season. April through October are the primary months when plants grow in my area. However, pollen of some description is available much earlier. Honey bees are mostly tree foragers, and alders, sycamores, hazel, willow, and blackthorn provide early nutrition (February onwards, sometimes earlier). The food is there, but can the bees get at it? If it’s cold or wet, the bees can’t fly, and they can’t collect the pollen needed to increase brood rearing in the hive. For beekeepers targeting pollination of orchards or a good crop from oilseed rape, the issue of feeding pollen or pollen substitute arises.
The temperature charts show that my bees can usually fly in good numbers from mid-March. If they can fly, which depends on the weather, they can access pollen. If they can’t fly, maybe I have to consider pollen subs at some point.
However, nectar is harder to come by. I don’t think we get a decent nectar flow until the dandelions are in bloom, usually late April these days. The bees generally fly well, bringing in pollen, and the brood nest grows fast. The pollen provides the protein for larval growth, and the foragers are fuelled by the honey stored in the hive. Growth stalls if the honey runs out at this critical point in colony development. Maybe they will need fondant in March to help them out, or perhaps some syrup in late April – it all depends. Feeding syrup too early may backfire if the weather turns; we have had bad snow in April in some years.
One more thing
I believe that hive insulation in the roof is very beneficial to honey bees. In the image below Peter Little has used Celotex to insulate the roof (the silver foil covered material) and wood shavings in an eke at the top of the hive. It reduces the loss of heat in cold times, prevents condensation on the cover board and reduces the risk of over heating in a hot summer. This recent item from Bee Culture says more.
Feeding in the autumn as part of winter preparation seems so much easier than the “should I/shouldn’t I?” situation in the spring. In the UK, the weather is a fickle companion, sometimes a friend and other times a foe. Beekeepers need to keep their eyes on the weather, the forage and the stores in hives and make decisions accordingly.