Today is the first day of my beekeeping year. During bee school, I am often asked when does the year start? This of coarse depends upon your point of view. I tell people to start spring feeding on September 15th, and from my view this is sort of the start for me. If my bees are not all fed to refusal then I have no right to expect them to be alive in March. As I have said many times before, fall feeding is not just to keep their bellies full, it also is to stimulate the queen to lay a final brood cycle into October. These young healthy bees will be the ones who go into the winter cluster and ultimately raise the brood in late winter. Healthy bees raise healthy bees! I have been able to take relatively week colonies in the fall and by feeding sugar syrup and a pollen substitute, I have been able to save colonies that would have died without my intervention. So sometimes September can represent the start of next year.
Today, the temperatures climed to 54 degrees and the bees were flying like crazy! The December weather had been cold and the bees hadn’t had a cleansing flight since sometime in mid November. I had moved some single story colonies into a winter yard down in Franklin in late November. The day got late and I never was able to install the mouse gaurds and insulation boards between the inner and outer covers. Today was the first day that was warm enough to finish up. Off I went! I was suprised that mice hadn’t snuck in and ruined about 30 colonies. I checked what was going on in a few hives. Low and behold, I saw eggs in one hive! Not a lot, but a few none the less. Another thing that goes against common belief is that there were drones left in many colonies. Conventional wisdom says that they should have been dead a long time ago. It also says that there should be no brood between November and February. Any way I closed things up and declared my bees ready for winter!
I keep thinking that this winter brood and the drones in January could be some adaptation to the varroa mites. Maybe the bees that have late brood are more able to survive the winter. The continued addition of young workers would certainly help with the winter populations and ultimately the survival of the colony. I have no theory about the drones other than perhaps I never was looking for them in the past.
I plan to put an indoor/outdoor thermometer in a large colony to discover when the colony raises the temperature in order to keep the brood warm. I have done this before and it is amazing to see the cluster temperatures go from about 65 to 96 in a matter of one day. Usually I can find brood by early February in the larger hives and by March in most of them. This dovetails with my policy of feeding my bees heavily in the fall. Bees will regulate the queens diet in order to keep her from laying eggs or as the days get longer and if they have enough food stores they will invest in more bees by increasing her diet of royal jelly. Raising brood accounts for most of the food used in the winter and especially in early spring. Years ago, Al Avitable from the University of Connecticut studied the winter consumption of stores by honey bees. While the numbers have escaped my memory, the long and short of it is that they need a surprisingly small amount of honey for themselves and most of the stores to feed and keep the brood warm. Early brood = early buildup in the spring. Early buildup = strong colonies that can exploit early nectar flows. Here in Connecticut, some of our major nectar plants have changed from Sumac that blossoms in late June and early July to Autumn Olive that can bloom in early May. Without early buildup from either natural stores or supplemental feeding, your bees will build up on the early nectar flow instead of storing a few boxes of nice light honey from it! It’s simple math. One medium super has thirty five lbs of honey. At a wholesale price of $3.00/lb that equals about $100.00. Not too shabby!
Working with bees today in the warm winter thaw gave me a large dose of Spring Feaver! I am sure that in a few days winter will come back with a vengence! I have a lot of equipment to make and assemble in the next two months so the cold weather will help keep me focused on winter projects. I have lots of plans for this New Year, especially swarm control. Last year, I fell and bruised several ribs on the last of March. This laid me up for two months and while I was healing, my bees were swarming! This cost me a lot of early honey. In many yards here in Connecticut, this amounted to all the years crop. I may also move more colonies arround for nectar flow. My New York bees had a good summer and fall flow. I discovered this too late to move bees and I could have made thousands of lbs of additional honey if I had responded by August 1st. I also plan to put out pallets in each yard to store empty supers when the nectar flow ends in late June. So often I end up leaving supers on hives while waiting for the fall flow. This may seem easier but then I am not able to evaluate what is going on and if the dearth is drawn out, the bees hollow out the full supers. Another bunch of lost honey! Sugar is a whole lot cheaper than honey and when you have a lot of hives, this can add up fast.
January 1st begins a New Year, but my bees usually won’t start spring buildup for several weeks. It behooves all beekeepers to take the winter to get any new equipment ready while the snow flies because when it gets warm the bees will go full speed ahead and you need to be ready. That means plenty of empty honey supers and a few empty hives ready for swarms or splits. Make sure that you put a good paint job on the wooden ware NOW! Beehives are expensive and once put out with no paint they will warp. split and eventually rot.