October 10, 2016

Feeding Bees in Late Winter / Early Spring

early spring honeybee feeding As a beekeeper it is all to easy to relax once the first spring flowers begin to show and your bees are beginning to venture out and assume that your bees can fend for themselves again. This is the time when bees may need the most help. As the bees become more active they will need more food, which they may not readily be able to replenish yet from external resources. In addition a few good spring days maybe followed by days of cold and wet weather at this time of year. In fact early spring / late winter is the time when honeybee colonies can be most at risk.

Having got your colonies through winter  it important for beekeepers to correctly manage hives that have survived as this is the time of the year when bees start running out of stored honey if they haven’t already, especially if they are starting to become active for some parts of the day. To help them not to die from starvation, it’s important that you feed your bees. If you find dead bees with their heads stuck in cells, this is a sign that they have starved to death.

It is too early to feed your bees sugar-water as they will not be able to get rid of the excess moisture. A quick method of getting food to them is to pure some sugar into a bowl and add just enough water so that you can form the sugar into a firm but moist ball. This ball can then easily be added to the hive either over the hole on the crown board or onto the frames above where there are most active bees present.

Alternatively you can tear a paper bag of sugar add a small amount of water enough to moisten but not soak the bag and place this into the hive.

Pollen patties are a good source of protein for the bees, which is essential for any new brood that maybe developing. These can be purchased or made from a dry powder mix.

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Icing or Powdered Sugar for Varroa Control

The use of powdered sugar dusting is a popular non-chemical approach to the control of varroa mite in honey bee colonies and is seen as an effective integrated pest management control (that is, one that does not rely on chemical intervention but good management practices.)

The method has proved to be an effective means of reducing varroa mites in honey bee colonies, having a significant impact on mite reproduction. When the bees are covered with powdered sugar their bodies become slippery causing the varroa to lose their ability to cling to the bees, the granules of sugar interfere with the gripping surfaces of the varroas’ feet and they fall to the floor of the hive.

The powdered sugar also causes the bees to groom themselves more frequently causing more mites to be dislodged. This technique does not appear to have any adverse effect on adult bees or brood.  Unlike chemical methods this technique can be used at any time, even during a honey flow, as it does not contaminate the honey and as frequently as needed to control the mite. It can also be used as a method for detecting and assessing varroa mite infestation, within a colony.

How to apply powdered sugar to your honey bee colony

Take a sugar (or cocoa) shaker like the one pictured and use approximately 125 grams (1 cup) of sugar per single hive box. You should either have an open mesh floor or a sticky board in place, as the sugar does not kill the varroa but merely dislodges them. If not caught or dropped through a mesh floor the varroa will simply climb up into the frames again.

Smoke the colony as usual and put the sticky board in place on the hive floor if you are using one. Smoke the bees down from the top boxes. Remove the boxes and apply the sugar to the bottom box first, working up through the boxes. There is no need to remove the frames from the hive. Sift or dust the powdered sugar over the top bars of the frames and into the bees in the seams. Using a bee brush carefully brush the powdered sugar from the tops of the frames to between them.

The frequency with which you will need to apply this treatment will depend upon the level of varroa mite infestation.

The only down side to the use of powdered sugar for varroa control is if not used carefully it could potentially increase the chances of robbing by other bee colonies, during a nectar dearth and may also encourage ants. Even if you have an open mesh floor it is a good idea to apply a sticky board underneath to catch the sugar, this will also enable you to monitor the level of infestation in your hive.

Sticky boards can be purchased or made from cardboard or thick paper thinly smeared with a sticky substance such as vegetable oil or Vaseline.

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The equipment from any colonies lost over winter should be taken apart and cleaned thoroughly, especially if you suspect death was due to disease. Please refer to our disease and pest section for how to spot and deal with specific diseases and pests.

April in the Western Hemisphere is when hives should be thoroughly inspected and cleaned up where necessary. It can still be cold, so do be careful not to chill the brood, which will kill it. When the tempera­ture is above 50°F (10°C) and there is little or no wind, you can examine brood, but do not expose it to the atmosphere for more than a minute or two. When the temperature is 65°F (18°C) and there is little or no wind, you can then safely remove and thoroughly examine the frames.

In addition to checking for food stores, you should look for brood as this will indicate whether or not the queen is present and productive. You should at this time also clean out the hive entrance and scrape clean the bottom board or floor.

Remove excess propolis and comb from the frames and top board. All old or damaged comb should be replaced with new foundation. Old comb should be replaced on a regular basis to prevent the build-up of disease organisms. Cell size is also reduced over time due to the build-up of parts of cocoons left in the cells by pupating bees, this will result in smaller adult bees. If, when held up to the sun, no light passes through a comb, it should be replaced with new foundation or new drawn comb. As a rule we suggest replacing at least 25% of all comb per year. If you use frame spacers, using different colours to represent the year the comb was first used is helpful.

It is often a good idea to reverse the hive bodies, as a queen located in the upper hive body may be slow to expand her brood nest if adjacent frames are filled with honey and she is often reluctant to move downward. However this should not be done too early, in case it results in a split brood nest. Under these circumstances if there is a sudden drop in temperature it may make it difficult for the bees to maintain the correct brood cell temperature.

This is also now the time that you should be thinking about varroa mite control. As varroa is now so widespread it is safe to assume that varroa mite monitoring and control is necessary even if you cannot see any (for more details see our Varroa Control section).

Typically, colonies are treated for varroa mites in the late summer or early fall, after the honey harvest. However any colonies not treated in Autumn may need to be treated in Spring.  All chemical control treatments must be completed well before the honey flow begins and any supers are put in place.

If you decide as we would recommend to use Integrated Pest Management (IPM) techniques as a means of varroa mite management, many of these techniques will need to be put in place early on in the season.

More about Bee Colony Management

Correct late winter / spring management of your bees is vital to the survival and productivity of the bee colony for the rest of the year. This time in the beekeeping calendar is primarily concerned with ensuring that the bees have sufficient food stores, but also with disease and mite control.

In autumn, bees will normally cluster between the combs near the bottom of the stored honey. During winter, they will gradually eat these stores while moving upward between the combs, once they reach the top they will have run out of food and can potentially starve.

Having adequate supplies of honey and pollen located above and to the sides of the cluster is very important, since once first brood rearing begins, often early in January, the cluster will be unable to leave the brood area to find food reserves.

In February and early March, colonies should be assessed and opened preferably on a sunny day and only if the temperature is above 40°F (4°C). Midday is the best time to check the cluster so that the bees have adequate time to recluster if necessary.  When locating the cluster be very careful not to disturb it.

Even if food is available bees will not go down into lower boxes or move vertically in cold weather to get to food stores. So if the cluster is near the top of the hive, emergency feeding may be necessary. Check closely to see how much honey is available to the bees on either side of and above the cluster.

Colonies found to be short of stores before late March-Early April in more northerly areas should not be fed sugar syrup as the bees will have problems handling the excess water, unless the weather is unseasonably dry and warm. Instead sugar candy or dry granulated sugar (a quick method is to rip a bag of sugar open, dampen slightly and add it to the top of the frames or inner cover) should be fed to the bees.

Once the daytime temperatures increase enough to allow the winter cluster to start to disperse and occasional flights to take place, heavy sugar syrup can be fed to ensure the colony does not starve before external resources become available.

From mid-March through April, monitoring colony stores and its relation to brood expansion is important. The fresh pollen becoming available at this time, serves as a strong stimulus to brood rearing and as a result the size of the brood may increase faster than stores can be replenished. This is when colonies are particularly vulnerable to starvation.

If late March into April is warm and dry and good flight weather then feeding may not be necessary. However, if the weather inhibits flight activity, strong colonies with large brood areas can quickly run out of food. As a rule of thumb if at any time in Spring and Summer a colony has less than 20 pounds of food stores, equivalent to three full-depth frames of honey it should be fed. At this time sugar syrup, one part sugar to water should be given.

Pollen is also essential for brood raising, so check to see that sufficient supplies are stored in the brood area. You can increase or supple­ment pollen supplies with pollen substitutes avail­able from most beekeeping suppliers. In most instances this should not be necessary.

N.B. Once you start feeding you must continue until you are certain that plenty of natural resources are available, otherwise the bees may starve. In addition whilst feeding in spring will ensure that your bees do not starve, it may also lead to a rapid increase in brood rearing and therefore swarm management may be needed as early as mid to late spring.

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