Feeding honey bees in winter and early spring

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Posted by Andy Sivell | Posted in Bee feeding, Beekeeping advice | Posted on 16-02-2011

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Ah, the tell-tale first signs of spring: the sound of novice beekeepers texting one another with questions about what to do next. In our case they revolved largely around whether “to feed or not to feed”. That, and the rather bizarre question as to just how many dead honey bees one should expect to find when conducting the first proper hive inspection of the year.

Honey bee frames in February (UK)

Anyone seen the queen? Honey bees spread across all frames

Most of us had quite naturally consulted text books, beekeeping forums and more experienced beekeepers… and quite naturally received completely conflicting advice. The common sense and more popular view favoured feeding them candy if there was any evidence of their running low on stores. (That ‘evidence’ presumably being the absence of any stores). I therefore duly presented myself to the colony last Saturday, with hive tool and smoker in hand, ready to have a damn good poke around.

Slight – and I’m sure new – evidence of mould inside the roof didn’t exactly get me off to a good start, but once I’d lifted the crown board I found my own spirits lifted by the hive of activity within. The bees had spread themselves across pretty much all nine frames. Peering down between them I could see plenty of dead bodies piled up on the mesh floor, and guessed that that might be part of the reason for the fresh signs of mould. They didn’t seem to bother the live bees however.

Dead honey bees at first hive inspection in February (UK)

The ones that didn't make it through winter

As I carefully lifted out each separate frame, most seemed to have at least some stores left on them. Frame 1, which I’d ill-advisedly separated from the others with a frame of new foundation before sealing the hive for winter, was virtually untouched save for a handful of adventurous bees that clearly couldn’t believe their luck at having stumbled across such bonanza. Almost its entire surface was a wonderful golden yellow-brown. Frame 3 meanwhile, showed clear evidence of uncapped stores and was already around a third full. I quickly performed a swap-around, placing the undrawn foundation on the outside, before turning my attention to the hive floor.

Separating it from the brood box I placed it on the ground to have a good look. There were certainly a lot of dead bodies – at least an inch thick in places. With a casualness that I immediately regretted I tossed them into an inaccessible space behind the summerhouse before brushing the mesh and replacing the floor beneath the brood chamber. It was only then that I reminded myself that I hadn’t yet seen the queen.

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