Feb. 10, 2022

Late Winter Colony Management (060)

Late Winter Colony Management (060)

It’s early February and it’s winter. But winter in northern Ohio is a lot different than winter in the south, where bees are flying, foraging and raising brood. And where it’s cold, you can’t be doing things with your bees, but you can be...

It’s early February and it’s winter. But winter in northern Ohio is a lot different than winter in the south, where bees are flying, foraging and raising brood. And where it’s cold, you can’t be doing things with your bees, but you can be doing things for your bees: Getting ready for spring.

Food can be a problem right now. How much did you leave last fall? It’s tough to look, but if you can get a glimpse inside, how would you feed them if you had to? Fondant works, usually, by cracking a super and sliding it in right next to the cluster. Candy boards might work, but they can be too far away.

What about protein? Same way. If you’re in the south and you open a colony up, robbing may get started. Not a lot of food out there maybe, but bees will be hungry.

What about your varroa load? Do you know? How were they going into winter? You can’t even sample up north, but you can in the south.

Finally - do the pests in a beehive die when the bees die?


Thanks to Betterbee for sponsoring today's episode. BetterBee’s mission is to support every beekeeper with excellent customer BetterBeeservice, continued education and quality equipment. From their colorful and informative catalog to their support of beekeeper educational activities, including this podcast series, BetterBee truly is Beekeepers Serving Beekeepers. See for yourself at www.betterbee.com


Honey Bee Obscura is brought to you by Growing Planet Media, LLC, the home of Beekeeping Today Podcast.

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


Honey Bee Obscura

Episode 60 – Late Winter Colony Management


Jim Tew: Kim, it's blistering cold out there. Is there anything you can think of that we could be doing or should be doing with our bees?

Kim Flottum: Keeping good thoughts is about as good as it's going to get at the moment because there's not a whole lot can be doing out there.

Jim: I agree with that. I agree with that.

Kim: There are some things, though. I think we should just at least mention them because if I don't mention them, I'll forget them, and then it'll be too late.


Jim: Yes, that's true. It's just a strange time in beekeeping where sometimes nothing is better than something. Hi, I'm Jim Tew.

Kim: I'm Kim Flottum.

Jim: Today we're coming to you from Honey Bee Obscura where we're going to talk some about beekeeping in late winter up north and south.

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, host Kim Flottum and Jim Tew explore the complexities, the beauty, the fun, and the challenges of managing honeybees in today's world, engaging and informative discussion meant for all beekeepers, long timers, and those just starting their journey with bees. So, sit back and enjoy the next several minutes as Kim and Jim explore all things honeybees.

Jim: Kim, this is always a special time of the year and can be so boring. Can I be so honest? Right now, Kim, I don't know what is it? 25, 35 degrees, went down to 6 degrees last night where you and I are living. Honestly, Kim, what can you do with bees under weather conditions like that?

Kim: Mostly what you can do is wish you could be out there but can't. There are some things to be thinking about getting ready for that. Really, if you start now when it is time to do these things, you have already done the preliminary, gotten all the supplies you need, and everything, ready. There are some things you can be doing for your bees, but not with your bees.

Jim: That's a good way of wording it. Doing things for your bees but not with your bees.

Kim: One of the things right off the top is food. Do they have enough food? Until you can get out there and check, you're going to have to get some food ready. Now, did you save honey frames from last year?

Jim: I did. I do have honey frames from last year that I set aside. I have to fight small hive beetles for them, and I have to do what I can take to keep wax moths out, but I do hold some honey frames back.

Kim: I've gotten away from extracting everything and I save a lot more. I leave a lot on because I don't want to mess with it. If you didn't and they run into low food, how do you feed in this kind of weather?

Jim: Right. You want to be helpful, and people like you and me talk about things that people who are listening should be doing. The brutal reality is in a cold climate, it's hard to go out and be helpful because the bees don't know that you're there to help. The last time I opened a colony up, about a week ago, 10 or 12 inches of snow, well below freezing, and a couple of bees came flying out. They flew about a foot, they crashed into the snow. I thought, "This is silly and nobody's watching, but I'll put you back in the cluster since you tried to defend the colony, stupidly." I picked the bee up, dropped it back in the cluster, and then with that stimulus, four other bees flew out. Then for that one, I had four bees in the snow. You can't really be helpful. I agree with you completely. We as the beekeepers need to know what the status of the colony is but we as the beekeepers need to know when you open that cluster in hard winter, we disturb it some.

Kim: Yes, that's the price you're going to pay. I guess two things come to mind right away. One is last fall, did I guess how much food I was going to leave, or did I know that there was going to be enough there? I've been doing this for enough years to know that I need at least 60 pounds of honey on a colony, and I prefer to leave about 75 or 80. If I'm up there with 80 pounds of honey, I know I'm going to have some left when spring's here.

Jim: Can I tell you this in private? That's where my extra honey and the comb comes from. You said I know that I'm leaving on too much, I know I want to have some dead-outs and so I know there will be some honey in that. I also hold some back, but that honey gets used, it's not wasted because it happened to be on a colony that didn't survive.

Kim: The problem that goes with that to a degree is the protein that they need at the same time, getting protein in there. Even what you just did, open up that colony, you just crack that box, you can slide a protein patty in there, one corner of that box pretty quick. If you're good at it, you can do it before even one bee gets out there.

Jim: If you're really quiet-- I want the proper seal there and it always cracks. If you've broken it before, it doesn't always crack and make the noise that it is. Sometimes if it's really cold and you're discreet and quiet, the bees will not get really reactive. The colder it is, I guess the better it is. Can I say that? I've never said it before. The colder it is, the better it is because the tighter the cluster, the less likely they are to come out. If it's 35 and they're in a loose cluster, they're going to be buzzy. If it's 10, they're in a tight, no-nonsense cluster and they're not buzzy.

Kim: You grew up where there wasn't a lot of snow, any snow probably.

Jim: No snow. Except on Christmas cards. There was always snow on Christmas cards.

Kim: [laughs] You've got a whole different set of experiences. I've never overwintered in the south. What do you run into when you were down in Southern Alabama, and I suppose Georgia and Louisiana and Mississippi?

Jim: Yes, that whole area. No, it's a different world. One thing that I'm always marveling at is how many dead bees there are in the snow and how far they flew before they died in the snow.

Kim: That's up here, now.

Jim: That's up here but see, you never see that in Alabama or Georgia. You never knew that you've got bees all around that bee yard that flew out in the winter and died. I must deal with the anxiety in Ohio of seeing all these dead bees when I never felt that anxiety in areas where the snow cover didn't really show those dead bees everywhere. I could feed anytime you want. You can go out and have a look and I can say with authority there is a small patch of brood in three frames here. I can never say that here in Ohio. You can open the colony up and have a look. You can disturb them. I would do it in the morning, so they have the rest of the day to settle down before two or three o'clock when the temperature begins to drop back down again. It's just easier beekeeping to a point. I also had robbing problems. When you're out there and you're doing this and you're opening and you're trying to add some feed or whatever, then you're the game in town, you're the only game. Sometimes I would get robbing started because I had a feeder going and there's nothing else to work on. It's not like it's free beekeeping, but it is different beekeeping in some ways because the penalties are not as great but when there are penalties, they're different.

Kim: You just mentioned feeding and you're alluding to sugar syrup, I guess. Up here or even down there, you could be using fondant if you needed to get carbohydrate into that colony. I like using fondant a lot. It's easy to fix, it's easy to apply, it doesn't make a mess and you can put it right where the bees can get at it. Did you use fondant down there at all, or is that being used where you're warm enough to feed liquid?

Jim: I did not use fondant in those years because we had to make it. I can't remember the recipe for it, but it was something to do with tartar and you had to cook the syrup and make these candy boards. There was a recipe for it, but it was a lot of work. We either fed straight sugar or some kind of candy concoction, or, on occasion, liquid syrup. Then just about the time you're doing all that, then this corn syrup craze hit if we're going to go walk down memory lane here, then there was corn syrup, and everybody was gaga about using corn syrup. We did that for a while, and then by then I had left the Southeast primarily and had moved to Ohio, and then that was when I began to have more use of this purchased fondant that you could buy.

Kim: You mentioned candy boards and a lot of people up here still use those right on the inside of your cover. You boil up a sugar concoction and put it in there and let it get hardened, put the cover on and let the bees come up through the inner cover and eat that, but on days like today, I'm sitting here looking at the window, it's 18 degrees, they're not going to be going up to the cover to get food.

Jim: No, not unless they're there already. You know that ring? Tell those new beekeepers that when you got snow on the colony and you've got that ring where there's no snow right in the middle of your outer cover, then that means that cluster is up top. They're up high right under the inner cover handhold and they're melting the snow off outside of the cover. That's an easy tell that that colony is already high up. You could, in theory, put a candy board on that if you could open them up and not get the bees upset.

Kim: Long ago, my mentor in Wisconsin told me that when you saw that ring on the top of the colony, they were on their way to heaven.

Jim: [chuckles] Okay. Let's take a break and think about that, Kim, and get a message from our sponsor, but I like that.


Better Bee: Betterbee is pleased to sponsor today's episode of Honey Bee Obscura podcast. For over 40 years Betterbee has supplied beekeepers across the country with the tools, equipment, and knowledge needed to succeed. Because many Betterbee employees are beekeepers themselves, they understand your needs and challenges and are better prepared to answer your beekeeping questions. From their colorful catalog to their supportive beekeeper educational activities including this podcast, Betterbee truly lives up to their tagline of beekeepers serving beekeepers. See for yourself at betterbee.com.

Jim: At least you know. At least you know. I was thinking while we were breaking here that, honestly, beekeepers, you should have done this all last fall. You should have had an idea of how this is going to be going. Kim, in my life, the big variable has become the Varroa load that they're carrying. I can leave all the honey stores on, I can position the honey stores correctly, I can reduce the entrances, I can close off the screen bottom board, but if I'm sending them out in the winter with a heavy Varroa load, that's just a wildcard. They sometimes will make it. They sometimes won't make it.

Kim: Yes, more likely than that not, not make it. If you did your testing last fall early and you got treated early so that most of the colonies going into winter were really low or no population early, you probably still have these now, but if you had a load last fall, you probably don't have any bees at all anymore. There's not much you can do until it warms up enough to get in there and do something. Varroa is the new problem. It's not even new.

Jim: I was waiting to think how to well respond to that. I'm clearly a slow learner because I've had it since 1984 or 1985 and I'm still trying to figure out what to do with these pests which means that they're admirable foes that they've dealt with everything I've tried and they're still standing, bloodied, but still standing. They are admirable foes; I have to say that.

Kim: Yes. if you didn't take care of them last fall, pretty much right now is too late to worry about them unless you're in the south. If you're in the south this time of the year when it's warm enough to get in and examine a colony, it's warm enough to get in and take a sample of bees for a Varroa test and see where are you with them, right?

Jim: That's true. That's exactly right. You can be more assertive about that earlier in the year.

Kim: Yes.

Jim: We're whining. You're talking about the warmer climates right now. We're whining about how cold, how tough, how bad, whatever. They've got pollen coming out already in some parts of the country. It's just inconceivable that we're trying to talk on one hand about how to walk in 14 inches of snow to get to your colonies. Other people are wondering already what you do with all these pollen flows coming in.

Kim: Yes, social media has done a lot to rub it in.

Jim: Yes. I stand that very much. But it's calming. It's just beekeeping in a different place. I loved beekeeping in the Southeastern US. I love beekeeping where we are. Varroa has made it more challenging for all of us. I want to tell you a short story, Kim. I want to tell the listeners. I need to verify this better, but, I opened the colony. It's been maybe three weeks ago now. It was dead. I suspect it's going to be dead. It had a queen on a very small cluster that had already died. I thought this is a photographic moment. They're all block-solid frozen.

I can get some really close-up micro pictures before they begin to thaw out and move. While I was photographing, boom, there was a varroa mite. Then another, boom, there was a small hive beetle. I finished my bee photography. In a bit, I came back to photograph that mite, it was gone. I thought, "This is weird. Did I jostle that frame? Did I do something?" Then, I went to photograph the beetle and it was gone. Now, the bees were hammered dead, but I'm wondering. I'm not saying it, but I'm wondering, "Did the pest die at the same time the cluster dies or can they hold on for a while?" because that one beetle and that one mite, that's not science, but they weren't where they were just 15 minutes ago. I'll leave it at that. I don't know what it means. I'd never thought before. I just assumed that everything does at one time, all the pests and all the bees. It looks like those two pests had not yet died. Is that a mystery or what?

Kim: There is no justice, is there?


Jim: No, I couldn't find them. Anybody who wants to know, no, I couldn't find them on the comb, I couldn't find them crawling around on the tabletop. It doesn't mean anything other than the fact that you might want to be careful if you're bringing those combs in, if you're shifting frames around for feed and you think that this colony is dead. Maybe the bees are dead, but I don't know if I can always say that all the pests are dead too.

Kim: I think it's time for us to go look and see if we can find that mite and that small hive beetle.

Jim: I'm going to let you call me when you get back, if I'm lucky, you just give me a call.

Kim: I'll do that.

Jim: Let me know what you found. I'll assume that that's exactly what I'm going to find too.

Kim: Okay. I'll call you when I get back.

Jim: We're going to leave it like this. There's not a lot you can do. It's probably a good idea to have some notion of what's going on inside the colony. If you live where it's really cold, if you live where it's warm, go ahead and start your year. It's all right. Get off on a good foot.

Kim: Yes, see you next time.

Jim: Thanks for listening, everybody.


[00:17:36] [END OF AUDIO]