It’s getting cold in many parts of Australia and that triggers autumn beekeeping chores. We have been busy over the past few weeks preparing our hives for the winter. Winter can be treacherous for bees because when the weather is cold and/or wet bees don’t fly and gather nectar or pollen. When its cold and raining bees stay in their hives and eat any stored nectar or pollen as a food source. If bees don’t have ample stores of nectar/honey and pollen they can starve during extended periods of cold and/or wet weather.
Where possible we have left a full box of honey on all hives, so they have plenty to eat during extended periods of cold weather. This is something that seems to be unique to Australia because our international beekeeping friends tell us they don’t do this. It seems presence of colony collapse disorder and the varroa mite around the world now means that honey is considered precious, and is not left with hives over winter as food. We are fortunate in Australia to have access to winter sources of nectar and pollen and this usually means we can survive the winter without feeding any form of sugar.
We live in a cool to moderate climate, so we always seek winter sun and protection from the winds when we settle our hives for winter. Position of hives in winter is important. The sun warms the hive and helps the hive maintain a consistent temperature. When the hive is cold bees shake their little bodies and they use energy when they do that. They have to eat their stored nectar and pollen when they have to use extra energy to stay warm so we try to prevent that – by keeping them in a warm environment. We also do a final disease check and placed new hive beetle traps inside the hives at this time of year. We have also reduced the size of entrances to about 5cm to reduce the amount of heat loss from the hive.
As part of the “tucking in” process we have taken all surplus bee boxes off the hives. In most cases we have pushed them down to “doubles” (the brood box plus one box full of honey). Doubles are better in cool climates because they are warmer. We have painted the lids of hives as well. The dark lids help the hives keep warm as the dark colour absorbs more heat from the sun.
Packing bees tight
If you’re an amateur beekeeper, and worried about the survival of your hives in a cool climate, you might like to try a technique we call packing them in tight. We say: “packing them in tight” because the tighter they are, the less air space they have, the warmer they will be, and the higher the likelihood they will survive the winter. David, one of our master beekeepers and third generation beekeeper, laughs about this and says..”We want our bees tucked up so they don’t know whose leg is whose”. When using this technique we place a dark sheet of plastic on top of the bottom box (also called the brood nest), under the queen excluder.
The plastic has to be clean, dark or black. If you have a piece of plastic that is dark on one side and white on the other – then place the white side upwards.
When placing the plastic, we recommend that you leave 5cm at the back and 2.5 cm at the front. The 2cm gap at the front allows excess moisture in the hive to run down the front of the hive, and out the entrance. The 5cm at the back is very important in case you need to feed the bees over winter. If the bees have ample stores you can choose to arrange the plastic with 2.5cm space all the way around the inside of the box.
Starvation during winter
A couple of our urban hives have been light on stores, (had minimal stored honey) and this means we are concerned they may not survive the winter due to starvation. Starvation is quite a worry for us with our Canberra Urban Honey hives , and many beekeepers are probably feeling that same worry. The problem is, when the weather is cold and wet, bees will stay in the hive and eat their stores.
In anticipation of a wet winter we have left the 5cm gap in the plastic at the back of the hive. We can then give any starving bees about three cups of raw granulated sugar if we need to every two to three weeks. (Not white or refined sugar). When feeding bees raw sugar to prevent starvation, the sugar is placed in the BACK of the hive, across the end bars. The sugar will fall down between the frames and become a food supply when or if needed. If the bees don’t need it, they will take it out of the hive and discard it at the front entrance. Don’t place the raw sugar into the hive across the front because the sugar will block off the entrance!
This technique may be new to some beekeepers, who may have read that sugar syrup or white refined sugar is the best way to feed bees. In the end, its up to you, but be alert to the age of some research. Also, be careful when feeding sugar syrup during the winter in cool climates as bees can interpret it as good conditions and fail to recognise that they should stop breeding for winter. Raw granulated sugar is what we use for feeding in the winter, we have been doing this for over a decade and it works well for us. As far as we are aware, the technique hasn’t been studied so we don’t think you will find any research on it. The best we can do is suggest that the trace vitamins and minerals in the unrefined sugar supplements a bees nutrition, which is better for their overall wellbeing. Raw granulated sugar also has a lower melting temperature, so bees don’t need added water in the hive to use it. We feed it slowly and only when needed so that bees will still forage and seek natural nectar if they can find it.
Please think of bees over winter during cold, dark or raining days. We feel confident the summer has provided most of our hives with ample stores for winter. If you’re an amateur beekeeper, we hope this helps you prepare for the winter ahead.
The Honey Delight Family