Some of us, (and by that I mean me), are looking forward to autumn and a quieter time of year regarding all things Outside. The bees are preparing for winter, so have ousted the drones, who by now will have missed their chance to contribute to the next generation. The foragers are gathering both pollen and nectar to build up their stores for winter. Some colonies may be more mature and already have a sizeable framework of wax combs in which to put food for both adults and young, as well as heavily propolised entrances and interior walls which will repel moisture, invaders, and pathogens. New colonies, so those which inhabited their new home this spring or early summer have a much bigger job to do, and when you look at the difference between the resources a colony of a year or more has compared to one which has started from scratch, and you can see why bees will seek out a home which has had previous honey bee occupants so that it is a restoration and renovation project rather than a new build.
As beekeepers, it is easy to look at this situation and worry that the younger colonies are not sufficiently established to overwinter successfully, and even with more longstanding colonies, to boost them “just to make sure”. This is in the form of sugar: syrup or fondant, which is an easy fix with starvation being cited as the number one reason for bees succumbing to the cold season. After all, sugar is food. The true situation, however, is more complex, but equally simple to solve.
Something that seems to be forgotten in many beekeeping circles is that our bees are inherently part of the environment, just like birds, or trees, or worms. Because we house them in hives we’ve procured, and site them on land we own, and we take their honey to feed ourselves, they slip in to the role of pet or livestock, whereas in reality their behaviour is still very much that of a wild animal, for all their domesticated status. Bee colonies have different strategies depending on their genetic make-up but it is wholly linked to their relationship with the environment. Some may prioritise rearing lots of brood in late summer so that they have sufficient numbers to cluster overwinter and gather stores; others stop the queen laying early in the cold season and tough it out with low numbers so they need very few resources. The former will need much more by way of stores (and therefore a favourable autumn to gather them) whereas the latter will need much less but may fizzle out if the winter is cold and lengthy. Mature colonies – sympathetically managed – may have honey in their larders which is left over from the previous year. Nectars and pollens have variable nutritional properties (unlike sugar syrup or pollen substitute) and the bees will benefit from a wide range of forage available to them throughout the season, but these younger colonies will only have that which they’ve gathered since they moved in. They need to ‘read’ their environment and feeding sugar disrupts this as it is empty calories with no connection with the bees’ workplace, namely the plants around them.
So what to do? My take on this is to augment their natural defences against the cold wet weather but in such a way which doesn’t interfere with the equilibrium of what’s going on outside and inside the hive that they need to judge and maintain.
- Insulation. This is the best thing we can do to help our bees, given that every hive is a poor alternative to the tree trunk home they would naturally choose. Reducing their need to expend energy keeping warm is effectively ‘feeding’ them as they use fewer stores, but it is a natural response: their stores last the length of time they should as bees have evolved to need a certain amount across the winter, and our putting them in thin and draughty houses makes them eat more
- Create more forage. Having a wide range of nectar and pollinator plants in the vicinity of the hive means the bees have a choice of what they gather and can maximise the efficiency of their calorie intake. This may even mean us doing less (ie mowing) rather than planting more, although using pollinator alternatives is a win-win
- Maintain nest homeostasis. Every time we open the hive, we cause disruption and loss of the carefully-managed internal temperature and humidity of the nest
There are many options for insulation such as quilts, cork wrappings, a wooden ‘shell’ over your hive to protect it from the elements. Providing more forage is simple: we should be looking for opportunities to increase forage wherever and whenever we can. Maintaining nest warmth is also relatively easy: don’t remove the lid – or more importantly, the crownboard.
Of course this is very generalised, and each colony should be assessed on its provision for winter on an individual basis, but I do think we should be thinking about how we can protect and provide for our bees by tuning in to, and replicating their natural needs, rather than override them with man-made solutions.
How are you insulating your hives this winter?