Bees in winter

I read a very interesting thing on Twitter this evening – I’m amazed to have found something noteworthy in amongst all the General Election mudslinging – from someone called Joe Ibbertson (@BizzleBugs) who I follow as he is also a treatment-free beekeeper:

I think this is a really great summary. Consider this: a fundamental aspect of a bee’s life is being good at foraging, and by that I mean being able to seek out a diverse range and large quantity of nectar and pollen. Bees have always had to compete for resources as that is how nature operates, and although the current environment in which they work has changed dramatically, the requirement of this basic skill remains, and, importantly, an ability to forage effectively must by definition be a heritable trait. Of course the practical application of this inherited characteristic will vary depending on the amount of food to be had, but, essentially, going out and finding food is something that is vital for the bee colony, otherwise it won’t survive.

So, we want to encourage colonies that are effective foragers to be the ones to survive, and this genetic tendency needs to be expressed, then honed and applied to the local area in order to provision the colony. If we feed sugar syrup and fondant over the winter, we are skewing the bees’ natural reserves, and then they – and we – are reliant on them receiving supplementary feed. They need it because they will not experience a time of shortage and therefore not necessarily regulate their stores accordingly, and we will need to feed them as we will never know whether they survived because of our intervention or in spite of it. I know people who have full supers on their hives and they still fed syrup through autumn, and are now feeding fondant, or saving it for a “Christmas present”, probably the most ludicrous and gimmicky practise since beekeeping began. When in nature does an overwintering bee colony suddenly get a massive influx of concentrated feed? I’m not talking about starving bees here, this is just as a matter of course, whatever the bees have in the hive already. Sure – they’ll eat it, reinforcing the idea that they need it whereas they are simply taking advantage of an unexpected bounty, but is this helping them to become resilient in the face of changing forage patterns? They need to be wheedling out nectar sources by finding them in the environment, and assessing what is actually happening out there in their locality. Yes, if a colony is small, it may succumb, but if it has been given a safe and well-insulated hive to make its home, and it is sited in an area of rich nectar and pollen, it should survive. It might have to really tighten its belt and hunker down, stop feeding the queen so she doesn’t pack out the colony with yet more eggs, sit tight and eke out the honey it collected in the summer, but this is what an overwintering bee colony is designed to do. Surely we should be supporting its time to slow down and stop feeding so it can have a rest. That break in the brood cycle is great for checking the growth of the varroa population too. Looking out for parasites and pathogens and dealing with them in-hive is another heritable and learned trait so the emphasis here again is: allow the bees to display what, if any, hygienic behaviour they have.

I listened to a really interesting podcast about how our wheat crops are designed to grow with artificial inputs. They need applied nitrogen and other fertilisers as they don’t have good root systems or an ability to form symbiotic relationships with the soil bacteria. They have little defence against pests and diseases, being virtual clones in the field, so require protecting with fungicides, pesticides, and herbicides. This ends up being an endless cycle which is difficult to get off, as of course, if you stop and do something different there will be a period of transition which might not look very pretty. I have always said that if the only way I can keep bees (let alone get any honey) is by feeding them syrup and treating them for mites, I don’t want to do it. So, I give my bees all the tools they need to keep themselves fit and healthy, and I don’t interfere with that process, trusting them to manage their resources and look after their colony effectively. Not all bees can do this, so they don’t make it, but enough do to convince me that it is something that they can and should be doing so why prop up those who can’t? This underpins the principle of sustainable beekeeping in my view, and I monitor the inspection boards, watch for activity, and keep an eye on what forage is available. I don’t disturb them, or tap them, or bother them at all. It may seem like tough love but they are fitter and stronger for it, and as the challenges build up in the environment, surely resilience is what we should be focussing on with our bees rather than selecting for yield, or how straight they build their combs, or whether the bees run around on the frames during inspections….

2 Replies to “Bees in winter”

  1. I concur, with little experience mind, but everything you say makes total sense! A brilliant read during my lunch break. Going to forward this to someone I was trying to convince (less eloquently) on this exact topic. So, thank you I shall forward your articulate explanation 😁

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