How much honey do you leave for the bees this winter? Like lots of things in beekeeping, it depends. Since “all beekeeping is local”, it is good to start in your own backyard. Do you live in the south? Midwest? North? Far north? When are you...
How much honey do you leave for the bees this winter? Like lots of things in beekeeping, it depends. Since “all beekeeping is local”, it is good to start in your own backyard. Do you live in the south? Midwest? North? Far north? When are you pulling your honey? In August? Or November? Do you typically have a fall nectar flow? Is it strong or just… meh. If you don’t know, check with another beekeeper. They can give you added insight to the local conditions. (This is yet another time knowing an experienced local beekeeper comes in handy. Join a local club! – ed.)
Even if you have an idea of HOW many pounds of honey you should leave, you need to determine how much your colony has in surplus of what they will need to get them through fall and winter to spring. How do you do this? If you have your colony sitting on a scale, you have a good idea – regardless of the size of equipment. But if you don’t, you need to get some form of estimate. Can you ‘heft’ the hive like the old books suggest? Does that work for all beekeepers? What about counting honey supers and brood boxes. Whether you are counting deeps or mediums, you can estimate, based on the ‘typical’ weight of a super or deep and the number of frames you run.
Kim and Jim work through all your options in this episode and provide insightful direction that should help you leave enough honey on your bees, regardless where you live.
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Music: Heart & Soul by Gyom, Walking in Paris by Studio Le Bus, original guitar music by Jeffrey Ott
Copyright © 2022 by Growing Planet Media, LLC
Kim Flottum: It's that time of year, Jim, when you start removing honey, when you start harvesting, when your whole year finally comes to a pail or bottles of honey, but there's a bigger question, how much of that honey should you leave on your hive to overwinter? Therein lies a whole bunch of questions.
Jim Tew: Therein lies a whole bunch of questions. Is it questions or guesses? What's the difference between a question and a guess? [chuckles]
Kim: Well, when it comes to honey and honey bee colony if you don't answer the questions right, you got a dead colony next spring. That's the difference. Hi, I'm Kim Flottum.
Jim: I'm Jim Tew.
Kim: We're here today to talk about something you need to think about long and hard right now, and that's how much money do you leave on your colony to overwinter?
Introduction: You are listening to Honey Bee Obscura, brought to you by Growing Planet Media, the folks behind Beekeeping Today Podcast. each week on Honey Bee Obscura, hosts Kim Flottum and Jim Tew explore the complexities, the beauty, the fun, and the challenges of managing honey bees in today's world. Get ready for an engaging discussion to delight and inform all beekeepers. If you're a long-timer or just starting out, sit back and enjoy the next several minutes as Kim and Jim explore all things honey bees.
Kim: How much do you leave, Jim? Now you got a history of Alabama down south and you got a history of Midwest in Ohio. I've got Midwest and up north, so we're going to talk about kind of all three parts of the country here.
Jim: We just have a long series of areas for possible mistakes.
Jim: Because it was, you're right, in Alabama, all those years ago and with the beekeeper friends I still have there. The honey flow is just like it is here except it's different. Does that make sense? It does to me. Maybe not as intensive and maybe not quite as much honey produced, but probably, Kim, we left around 40 to 45 pounds of honey to overwinter. If you had to get a weight of honey.
Kim: You can go to 50 different beginners’ books if you can find that many, and if you kind of run all the numbers from all of them and come up with an average, the world will tell you that you just hit it right on for the South about 40 to 45 pounds. Midwest here in Ohio, we're looking at 60 to 70 pounds I need to leave. If you go up north like I did in Wisconsin, in Canada, they're talking 100 pounds that you need to leave on now so that you still have enough food on your colony next spring.
There are things to consider here that you may want to bet on. You're going to have a fall flow. Are you going to come back and harvest more? What's your management plan that will affect how much honey goes into winter on that colony?
Jim: Developing that management plan, developing that experience is something you just acquire over time. Number one, you talk to your friends at meetings, you talk to beekeepers anywhere to get an idea of what the fall flow is. Then number two, you just keep bees 2, 3, 5, 25 years and you get a notion that well, it's fun to really smell the backyard up but I don't make a lot of goldenrod honey. That would be my synopsis right now. I will get a fall flow, but it won't mean much.
Kim: Well, the other half of that question is how much do you have now? How much do you have so that you know how much to leave, and you get some guesstimates and I'll go back to those beginners’ books, and on average, they tell me that a medium frame full of honey, kept both sides, has about five pounds of honey in it. It's got wax and wood and also other things, so it's going to weigh more.
The full deep is going to weigh about 70 pounds. I have about 70 pounds of honey, so there's about seven pounds or so of honey per frame. Now here's a trick. If you run eight or nine frames and that 10-frame deep, that frame is going to have more honey, but you're going to have fewer frames, but you can stack more honey into, you know when you got more space between frames, that draw it out further and you can get eight and a half, maybe even nine pounds in a fully kept deep frame. Are your frames tight and smooth or are they fat and bulky?
Jim: All of those things are beekeeper options, aren't they?
Jim: Because I know where you're going. You haven't gotten there yet, but you're going to go to the eight-frame discussion because I understand you're an eight-frame beekeeper. All those same things you said apply to eight-frame equipment. Do you have seven frames in? Are you letting the bees draw the cappings or draw the combs out further? You end up getting probably the same amount of honey and fewer frames because they'll pull those combs out deeper. Much easier to uncap, I might add.
Kim: What this boils down to is counting frames. How many medium frames do you have or how many deep frames do you have at so much weight per frame? Do the math. It takes longer, especially when it's 95 degrees out, but it's more accurate if you're counting frames. One of the things that I learned in Wisconsin from a longtime beekeeper is how much does this colony weigh? He says, "Oh, you go out to your bee yard, grab the back and lift it." It weighs a lot. Not very much. Not hardly any at all. What? You're guessing.
Jim: Yes. That hefting thing I got in trouble with that. Actually, I got in trouble at your organization. They're in Medina, Ohio, 100 years ago because the beekeepers began to argue amongst themselves that hefting was not accurate enough. Well, this was a tempest in a beekeeping teapot. If you're a healthy, strong person, it might feel different to you than if you're a more lightly built person, but I got to tell you, one way or the other, I heft all the time.
When you were talking a bit ago about counting frames, yes, I'll count frames, but when I'm trying to move that deep around to see what is underneath that deep, I'm thinking boy, this deep weighs 228 pounds. It is full. This is how wintering supply right here. Just by being in that beehive, would you agree? Counting frames, moving equipment around, hot bees flying everywhere, spring seasons gone, you're going to quickly get an idea of how much honey is in that colony.
Kim: Yes and no. Yes, I can take a look at that top super and I can see that every frame is full. I got eight frames in there so I know that that frame was going to have about five pounds of honey, so I got 40 pounds of honey in that eight frame kept super, but then I take that off and I looked down below and there's some frames that are kept and there's some frames with brood and there's some frames that aren't kept yet and there's frames that haven't even been drawn out. Then you begin to hedge. That's why I'm looking at frames.
Jim: I'm not saying don't look at frames. I'm not saying that at all. It's an estimation. It's your best guess. I will say again, this is the second time, but just me personally, I don't really get a fall flow. Something will happen and there'll be that strong odor that aster and goldenrod does and you think, "Boy, I should be putting on some more equipment, but if I go back there, it's barely any nectar or new honey at all." I have to admit and have admitted now for decades that that my wintering crop is already made. It's already on the bees back there right now.
Kim: That is a safe way to approach this, I think. You're not going to guess that there's going to be a fall flow, and this year in my part of Ohio, lots of things haven't bloomed that should have bloomed. Am I going to bet that goldenrod is going to be, "I got two and a half acres of goldenrod, 100 yards from my beehives." Not even 100, 50 yards from my beehive, and last year, I didn't make enough goldenrod honey to fill a cup let alone supers.
Guessing that you're going to make a fall flow is just that, it's a guess. I think you're exactly right. I like your approach. All the honey that you're going to harvest has already been harvested and everything that comes from now on is the bees.
Jim: Yes. I was thinking while you were talking. What if you screw this up, Kim? What if you get really eager and you think, "I'm going to take this super. I'm taking this super, or I'm taking these two supers. This is going to be a good honey crop for me this year." Then in September, you realized this colony is really light if I heft or whatever. Can you apologize to that colony and give it liquid honey back? That's another segment for another time. If I miscalculate right now and I'll go ahead admit that it's early August right now, late July or early August. If I miscalculate now, can I give it back? Probably not readily.
Kim: Not easily.
Jim: It's going to take a long time for the bees to just retake that honey and put it somewhere else back in the colony.
Kim: I think you hit it exactly right. This is for next time or the time after, but how do you feed liquid honey back to bees? Therein lies several answers to another question, but I'll go back to I'd rather have them have 10 extra pounds that they need than me have to feed back 20 pounds somehow.
Jim: This is where I was going with this. If I'm standing there saying, "There's some frames there, should I take this or not?" If I have to ask that question, then that means it stays. If I'm uncertain, that means it stays because I'd rather have the bees survive the winter and have bees next spring than I had to have maybe the four or five, six pounds of honey that I'm considering right then.
Kim: Hang on to that thought because I got something to add to that, but let's give our sponsor a break here.
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Kim: Okay, well, then you know what it comes down to, I like that, if you have to guess, guess in favor of the bees. If you're counting frames and you know how much honey you got and how much you need to leave, it's 40 pounds in the south, 60 pounds in the Midwest, and 100 pounds up north, leave that much and you'll probably never have a problem, food wise wintering.
Jim: I don't think that we're repeating or that I'm repeating what you've already said, but there are ways to estimate how much honey that is. I don't want to keep talking about some future segment. That would be the wrong thing to do, I guess, but there's all kinds of scales. I don't have any of them. Kim, do you have any scales for weighing beehives in your yard?
Kim: Actually, I do.
Kim: It took me a while to figure this out, but you know what a handheld spring scale is?
Kim: I'm using one of those. What you need to develop is your standards to start with before, but how much does your beehive weigh next spring? You take that handheld hive out or handheld scale out and you lift it up and you lift the back of it just off the platform, and then you lift the front of it just off the platform. You add the two numbers together and you have the weight of two, however, you overwinter two deeps or three mediums. That's your baseline. If you're using two deeps, you're looking at somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 to 125 pounds in the spring.
Jim: Is this handheld scale, is that a bee device or is that just a scale that you buy at any hardware store?
Kim: Any hardware store. If you got a hook on one end and a handle on the other and a scale in between, that's all you need. You can adjust, you can add a rope to the handle like that, but that's what I've been using for 40 years.
Jim: Well, you need to stop talking because this needs to be a future segment that we discuss completely because there's other scale devices. I've got beekeeper friends who refer to their scale weights predicting swarming, predicting nectar flow, stopping, and starting. This is a good topic for some other time, but there are ways, Kim, this is where I get off the subject. There are ways to get a good solid number of estimates of how much honey you're leaving because if other beekeepers are like I am, I always anguish.
I'm standing there sweating, stung, sticky, trying to make decisions about when the wind is howling, and the snow is piled up against the colony. I'm trying to envision that colony under a completely different seasonal situation. It's not easy to do. I stand there uncertain every year, every time, always out. I'd like to say, I think that uncertainty is a part of the estimation process. Now go ahead, argue with me.
Kim: [laughs] No, I'm not going to argue with you because you're exactly right. It's a guess. You can throw in all of the factors to this formula that you want, you can come out with really bad guesses or really good guesses, but if you've done your homework and you know what you're working with, the chances are your bees are going to be okay, but you got to know you can't guess.
Jim: Yes. The chances are, what chances are, the guesses are, the estimations are, this has just been weasel-worded the whole way through this last 15 minutes, hasn't it? Because we haven't even discussed what else is going on. What's the Varroa population? Did you control the Varroa? What's the health of the bees that you're putting? Just leaving 40 pounds of honey in Alabama and 70 pounds here in Ohio that solves the honey part of the equation, but there's other elements to this overall picture on the status of that colony, what windbreaks you got. Is there going to be a raccoon there all winter harassing the colony? Everything's a variable, isn't it?
Kim: Everything, absolutely everything. I think maybe we need to stop adding variables and leave it at how much honey do you leave right now?
Jim: I was going to ask you to give those numbers one more time as though people weren't listening. You said in Alabama 40 to 50 pounds.
Jim: Go ahead.
Kim: The Midwest is above the Mason-Dixon line, I think, up to Lake Superior in that area. In the Midwest, you're looking at 60 to 70 pounds, and above that Lake Superior area into Canada, you're looking at 100 pounds you need to leave.
Jim: I don't know how we can leave this guessing situation any better than that. Those are the best numbers we can give. Those are the best guesses we can give. Keep your bees healthy, roughly leave that much honey, and then see what you got next spring.
Kim: Yes and learn from your mistakes.
Jim: What would you learn? What in the world would you learn?
Jim: Leave more honey? I got to quit. We got to quit. We got to quit.
Kim: All right.
Jim: All right.
Kim: What you mentioned is make sure your colony is healthy and we need to talk about that. Getting rid of mites and how and when and what to use sort of approaches.
Jim: I know you said mites, but it sounded like you said mice, M-I-C-E, because they're in the mix too. They can be just as disruptive as mites and then we are off the subject again or at least I am. Hey, if you've listened at this point, listeners, you know we always appreciate it.
Kim: Thanks for tuning in and know how much honey you've got and how much you need to leave. We'll talk to you next time.
Jim: Thank you.
[00:18:02] [END OF AUDIO]
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