Feeding the Colonies at the Winter Solstice

What happens to bees in winter? They hunker down in a tight cluster around their Queen, keeping her as warm as possible. The cluster moves slowly, consuming honey and pollen stores. Just after the winter solstice, the Queen may start laying again, though at a reduced pace. For bee-keeper and bees, winter is a waiting game, and the survival of the colony is far from guaranteed.

Quite a bit of misfortune can happen between the Winter and Spring solstices. Moisture can permeate the hive, causing disease and death. We addressed this possibility by wrapping the hives and installing moisture boards, which wick condensation out of the hive body. The colony can fall victim to mites – we have treated repeatedly over the course of the season, and had relatively low counts as of a month ago. Most bee-keepers agree that the leading cause of death for winter colonies is starvation, with low numbers caused by varroa mites a close second.

We have fed the colonies continuously since late summer, with liquid feed and pollen patties. When the temperatures dip below 50 degrees, the bees won’t take liquid feed; worse, the cluster won’t cross cold comb to get to stored honey and pollen. We’ve had clusters starve out six inches away from substantial resources. So we resort to the “Mountain Camp” method of feeding dry granulated sugar. The method is simple: a sheet of newspaper is put on top of the brood box, with a hole cut near the location of the underlying cluster. We added granulated sugar to the top of the newspaper, and the bees come out through the hole to feed.

On the next warm day, we’ll check on their progress. Some of the hives, like the one pictured below, look surprisingly strong. It’s possible that some of the colonies will survive; it’s also possible that none of them will make it, and we will have to replace them with new packages in April. It’s difficult for the bee-keeper to keep an emotional distance from the failure of a colony. Why did my bees die? What did I do wrong? Bee-keeping, like farming, is a discipline, and one that emphasizes that in the end Nature calls the tune, not us.