Dan Harris at Booger Hill Bees recently emailed to say that "This has been the mildest winter in my memory. My best estimate is that about half of my hives are brooding up as though spring were already here. I talked to an experienced beekeeper who discovered a number of hives that had starved already. These weren’t wimpy clusters but big populations of dead bees…and no stores left. So far I’ve been lucky. I’ve made the rounds and found about 10% of my hives were on the absolute brink. Large populations and frames of brood….and all of their winter stores gone. These were not hives that I thought were at risk last fall."
Bill poses this question: Can this happen in Vermont and if so, would it be worthwhile sending a message to the VBA membership to check their hives more carefully in the next few weeks?
Mike: I know Dan [Harris] at Booger Hill Bees. I've sold him queens. He's in Georgia, and from VA to GA the bees have been bringing in pollen all winter. This has got to cause brood rearing, so...
Yes, of course it's possible. A beekeeper in Fairfield wrote me a few weeks ago and said he had starved out colonies. These, he said, had two mediums of honey on top. So what's the deal? During warm winters, do the bees consume more feed and is there a risk of starvation?
Rather than the prevailing temperatures causing the bees to eat up more of their winter stores prematurely, I believe it's the amount of brood within the colony that is the culprit. Did your bees raise brood later into the Fall than usual? It seems to me that they did, and colonies the beekeeper believed to be heavy at the beginning of October were actually using up their winter stores to raise brood.
Normally, in a winter where the bees shut down brood rearing, a colony of honeybees might consume ten pounds of stores a month. This rate of honey use continues at a similar level until brood rearing gets underway in late winter or early spring. At that point, consumption of winter stores can skyrocket. The result, with no beekeeper intervention, is a dead colony.
But, are the bees raising brood already? Jadczak told me this is the first year that he found no brood in January when he pulled bees to set up observation hives for the Maine Farm Show.
Last summer, 2011, and this winter are very similar here in Vermont with the 2009-2010 season. Bad weather and half a honey crop in the summer. No Fall flow and tons of syrup fed. Brood rearing continuing late in the Fall. A warm winter followed and bees were in great condition in the spring, although light. Started feeding nucs fondant in February, and production colonies in March. Colonies were very strong in May and made a 108 lb avg in 2010. Little feeding that Fall.
I'm seeing the same thing now, without the necessary feeding in February. I've checked four yards, and one nuc yard. I've found one dead colony. Had a medium sized cluster in the top box, and not one drop of feed. I consider this operator error combined with PPB. Also found one colony with four mediums that built up from left-overs from extra mating nuc bees and a wintered queen. They had a cluster of seven frames in the top box, and light. I added a body of honey I was saving. Again, operator error in weighing or feeding. The nucs were, all but one, clustered below honey. None dead. The production colonies had the whole range of cluster sizes, as I would expect, and most were in the top box in contact with honey. Couldn't see nuc cluster sizes which were located in the bottom box, but blowing down between frames and estimating by buzz, I'd say they're normal.
I'm confident that my bees will be ok until March. I'll have to debate with myself if it's economical at this point to check every yard. I'm going to wait until the end of the month. With yard sheets containing Fall weights, I know which yards to check first. But this is what I'm seeing in my bees. I weigh my hives in September and October and feed as necessary. I rarely see starved colonies, usually only a handful when we unwrap in April. Many folks don't weigh and don't realize just how much feed it takes to bring up a light colony to acceptable weight. We fed 24,000 pounsd of sugar last Fall, and needed every bit of it.
So, all this means what...especially for those with a back yard apiary or a small number of colonies? Stop worrying about it. Go look at your bees. This notion you can't open an inner cover unless it's 50 and sunny and calm is wrong. The inner cover can be lifted up carefully, the cluster location observed, and note taken of honey stores and cluster position. Can't see the cluster...they're below...and have honey above...no problem. If they're in the top box...as some colonies will be...and they're in contact with honey, no problem. Have they got a good cluster? If you aren't sure about the feed, jab your hive tool into the edge of the cluster and see if it comes up with honey on it. If there is a cluster, especially a large one, and they aren't in contact with honey, they have to be fed now.
Bees shouldn't be fed syrup when they can't fly. The extra moisture causes dysentery, and can kill or significantly weaken the colony. Until April when daily flights begin, feed baker's fondant, which will keep the colony alive until syrup can be fed.
It really is quick and simple to check feed stores at this time of the year. It only takes 10 or 15 seconds, and the bees won't hardly notice you if it's cold. So what if 10 bees are lost, as that's better than losing the whole colony because you were afraid to open them. Next day it's not too nasty for you....go look.