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  • Writer's pictureMatt

Winter update.

The weather was warm and sunny all week.

Dunham Bees. Apiary. London, Ohio. Honey farm. Winter. Snow.
The snow arrives.

Then the weekend happened and I had time to get into the bees, so Mother nature saw fit to send us snow. Ohio weather is nothing if not unpredictable (is that a triple negative?).

Despite the meteorological roller coaster ride we've been on, the bees are doing well this winter. Some hives struggle, a few die, but opening up most of these boxes reveals a large cluster of healthy bees ready for spring to arrive.

Dunham Bees. London, Ohio. Honey Farm. Winter. Wax paper.
A healthy cluster of bees in a single story colony.

Honey bees spend most of their time in the winter clustered tightly in the hive, sharing body heat and consuming the honey they've stored for winter to get by until flowers begin blooming in the spring. In Ohio, the first significant source of nectar and pollen the bees have available comes from maple trees, which began blooming in our part of the state about two weeks ago. The combination of warm weather and incoming food resources means the bees increase their brood rearing substantially. As the colony grows, so does its food consumption, which can be problematic, as our crazy Ohio weather can turn from warm and sunny to cold and wet literally overnight. When that happens, the bees can't always get the food they need to grow the colony on their own: blooms get knocked off the trees by rain, flowers don't produce nectar, bees can't get out to fly due to the cold, it goes on and on.

Dunham Bees. Honey Farm. London, Ohio. Pollen. Winter. Beehive.
Pollen substitute.

This is where we beekeepers can do something genuinely helpful to the bees: feed them.

"But what do you feed bees?" you may ask. Well, at this time of year, when the bees need not only carbohydrates, but protein, I feed them a paste made from white sugar, water, and a powdered pollen substitute I buy from a bee supply company. It all gets mixed up in a bucket until it's roughly the consistency of peanut butter, and then doled out to hives on top of a sheet of wax paper. The bees will chew the wax paper and remove it from the hive as they consume the pollen substitute. As a side note, I once read a bee book in which the author suggested that sheets of different colored construction paper could be placed inside a beehive so that as the bees removed the resulting multi-colored confetti from the hive and discarded it out the entrance, a person could sit in front of the hive and watch this whole process for fun. I have pretty low standards for fun, but I have so far taken a hard pass on this particular recreational activity.

Anyway, back to the subject at hand...

There's all kinds of talk out there from beekeepers who don't like to feed their bees. The reasons range from concerns that substitute feeds aren't as nutritious as natural nectar and pollen, to worries about creating a miniature welfare state where the bees would rather be given food than make food of their own. My experience has been that neither of these are the case. While natural pollen and nectar are likely preferred by the bees, we have to remember that beekeepers generally don't feed bees when natural resources are abundant. In fact, bees will often ignore supplemental food when it is given to them if there are abundant flowers in bloom. Since I am out feeding growing colonies when the weather forecast is calling for a week of cold and rain, the actual choice the bees have is substitute food or nothing. When the bees need extra nutrition, they readily consume the feed.

Honey bees. Pollen. Beehive. Dunham Bees. London, Ohio. Honey Farm.
The bees begin eating the pollen substitute right away.

As for the "welfare colonies," hives that get what they need when they need it, whether it be from nature or the beekeeper, grow and prosper and will have the population of strong healthy bees they need to make a honey crop for themselves and a honey surplus for the beekeeper. Colonies that are allowed to dwindle can take an entire season to bounce back, if they do at all: it's a vicious cycle where there isn't enough food to raise new bees, so in turn there won't be enough bees in the next generation to gather food, and so on. The colonies left to fend for themselves often end up being the real "welfare colonies."

So, with a little luck, and a little human intervention, these bees should be ready for the spring, and ready to keep me busy.


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