Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date
(William Shakespeare, from Sonnet 18)
The End is Nigh
Strange as it may seem, we are approaching the end of the beekeeping season. It always flies by; summer’s lease is indeed too short for my liking. Most experienced beekeepers that I have spoken to consider Autumn to be the start of the beekeeper’s year. We are not quite there yet, but the days are shortening, and many queen bees have slowed down their laying considerably.
My next job in my apiaries is to harvest the honey. After that, I shall be treating colonies with a miticide called Apivar. Sometimes I use thymol, but this year I’m using Apivar. It is incredibly important to treat for varroa mites at this time. In September and October, queens will be laying eggs which become the “winter bees.” These bees will have to get through winter and start foraging in the following spring. They need to be in tip-top condition, which would not be the case if mites were draining the life out of them.
Shiny and New
I have invested in some fancy new gear to help with honey harvesting. I am trying a new uncapping device from a company called Honey Paw (see video below). Additionally, I went a bit crazy and upgraded my honey extractor.
There is a balance to be struck with bees at this time of the year. The honey must come off the hives before the mite treatment goes on. To do otherwise would lead to contaminated honey. If nectar is coming in the beekeeper will want to delay treatment to maximise the honey crop. But leaving it too long puts the health of the colony at risk. Heather honey is a delicacy, but it is a late crop. I don’t take my bees to the heather, but many beekeepers do; for some, it is the main crop of the season.
Apart from mite treatment, there is something else for us to consider. If we take the majority of the honey, how will the bees survive winter? Some people leave plenty of honey for the bees, but commercial bee farmers and many hobbyists tend to take as much as they can. They can then feed sugar syrup to the bees, which they will convert into a type of “honey” which will provide them with their carbohydrates for the winter.
Feeding Bees for Winter
Honey bees need at least 30lbs of honey to survive a typical winter in my area, although I like to leave them a little more. That equates to about five Langstroth brood frames full of honey or eight medium frames. During a mild winter, bees consume more than when it’s freezing. The warmer it is, the more likely it is that they will move about and even fly, which burns up more energy.
Most beekeepers agree that bees do very well on the sugar syrup. If your livelihood depends on bees, you won’t feed them something that does them harm. After the honey harvest, there is still nectar available for bees to forage. Many bees collect nectar from ivy, which flowers very late. It tends to crystalise in the comb, but bees can still usually make use of it. Even if beekeepers take as much honey as they can, the bees will go into the winter with a mixture of sugar syrup, summer honey left on the brood frames, and honey collected after the harvest.
I looked at a recent research paper which seems to be a well-done piece of work (Journal of Economic Entomology, 111(5), 2018, 2003–2010). It is called “Effects of Feeding Honey Bees (Hymenoptera: Apidae) With Industrial Sugars Produced by Plants Using Different Photosynthetic Cycles (Carbon C3 and C4) on the Colony Wintering Ability, Lifespan, and Forage Behavior.” They studied the effects of feeding various things (High Fructose Corn Syrup, glucose, sucrose and Bee Feed) compared to leaving them with their honey (the control). Here is a summary of what they found:
- bees over-wintered best on their honey although, depending on the amounts fed, sucrose was close, and in some cases better
- wintering ability decreased (2 to 14%) with increasing levels of all sugar syrups except the Sucrose group
- hive weight was highest in the colonies fed sucrose
- across the board, glucose was the poorest performing supplementary food
- during spring/summer wax production was significantly higher than the control in hives fed with all sugar types except glucose
- the inverted sugars (HFCS & Bee Feed) encouraged more foraging compared to the sucrose group and the control
Sucrose is the best Winter Feed
My take on this is that the best sugar to feed bees for winter is sucrose whereas the best for springtime would be an invert sugar, the best of which was Bee Feed. Feeding sugar generated higher wax production than the control (honey), which is why we feed bees when we give them frames of undrawn wax.
In some regions where the winter is long and harsh, the bees can be stuck indoors for several months without a cleansing flight. Some types of honey contain higher levels of complex sugars and other trace materials that bees cannot process into energy. Instead, they build up as excrement inside the abdomen of the bee. Heather honey and honeydew honey may be examples of this. In these rare cases, it may be that sugar syrup is a better winter food than the bees’ honey. I have not seen any proof of this; it could be an old wives tale, although it sounds plausible to me.
Those who go to the enormous effort of moving bees up to the hills to collect heather honey are going to harvest as much of it as they possibly can. Think about it; heather honey retail price can be over £10 per pound. Sugar is a lot cheaper than that, and maybe better for them over a long winter.
I’m still expecting the warm weather to return before we move into Autumn. However, for me, the end of the season approaches. Once the mite treatments and feeding have finished, we have crossed over into a new bee season. Unfortunately, there isn’t much beekeeping to do until the spring, so I shall have to think of something else to do. A week in Lanzarote will do for a start 🙂