I have always shrugged off the idea of “bee tea” as ridiculous, a feel-good indulgence for beekeepers with too much time and money on their hands. The idea that bee health could be augmented by an infusion of things they never eat in nature—the leaves and flowers of various plants—is absurd.
Practitioners of this oddity must believe that if tea is good for them, tea is good for bees. But bees are not humans. Humans eat many different plant parts and our good health depends on them. But bees eat only pollen and nectar. They do not eat leaves, petals, roots, or stems. So chances are extremely high that said leaves, petals, roots, and stems do them no good whatsoever. I assume they do no harm, but who knows?
Normally, bees derive their nutrients from pollen, nectar, and dirty water. Dirty water–the type they prefer–is full of single-celled organisms, decomposing organic matter, and a wide range of minerals derived from the soil. This water surely contains plant parts, but which plants and how decomposed they are will vary widely. It is up to the bee to decide if she wants to drink it.
If you are not familiar with this trend, beekeepers make bee tea out of dried and crushed herbs and flowers. The most popular recipes include yarrow, chamomile, hyssop, lemon balm, nettle, and dandelion petals. Many beekeepers add Honey-B-Healthy or an equivalent mixture of lemongrass and spearmint oils along with syrup or honey. The additives are used to attract bees to the tea because, without a sweetener, a pan of soggy leaves in otherwise clean tap water holds little attraction for your average apid.
Up until now I figured “so what?” If a beekeeper gets a warm fuzzy glow from sharing a cuppa with his colonies, no harm done. A pan of infused water outside on a sunny day won’t hurt the bees—after all, they can take it or leave it.
But I find the newest twist disturbing: beekeepers are now using herbal infusions in place of water in candy boards and fondant. Unlike the take-it-or-leave-it situation of summer, mixing plant parts in winter feed forces your bees to ingest things the wouldn’t normally select. Eating by choice and eating by necessity are two different things. If we were starving to death, most of us would eat whatever we could find regardless of the dietary nuances. Your bees will do the same.
Furthermore, ash or fiber in the diet of summer bees is not overly stressful since they are out and about. But ash and fiber in a winter colony could very easily promote honey bee dysentery, something most of us try to prevent.
Bottom line, I believe there is a big difference between “free choice” feeding and sneaking greens into their food. Especially in the winter, save the herbal tea for yourself, feed the greens to your kids, and leave your bees alone.
So-called pollen patties usually contain no pollen, but are designed to simulate real pollen. They can be purchased ready-to-use, can be made at home from a purchased mix, or can be made at home from scratch using a variety of recipes.
The thing to understand about pollen or pollen substitute is that it is used to feed larvae. Eggs don’t eat, pupae don’t eat, and adults eat honey, but the larvae are dependent on a supply of nutritious, high-protein food that is provided by pollen. The feeding system is indirect: nurse bees actually consume the pollen, usually in the form of bee bread. This rich diet allows them to secret the royal jelly that is fed to the youngest larvae. As the larvae mature, they are switched over to a diet of bee bread and honey.
The availability of pollen or pollen substitute to the colony increases the production of brood. Because of an enriched diet, the nurses are able to secret lots of royal jelly. So they prepare cells for eggs and the queen deposits them. Suddenly, brood production is in full swing.
But do you really want enhanced brood production in late fall or early winter? Under normal circumstances, the brood nest is at its smallest this time of year. The queen may completely stop laying eggs and brood may be non-existent.
The lack of brood at this time of year is a good thing. Consider the following:
The queen gets a much-needed respite from egg laying and a period of rejuvenation.
The center of the cluster can be kept at a much lower temperature when no brood is present. According to Caron and Connor, in Honey Bee Biology (2013), when a colony is broodless the center of the cluster is kept at about 70°F (21°C), as opposed to about 94°F (34°C) when brood is present. This lower temperature conserves food stores.
With little brood, a smaller adult population is maintained, which also conserves food stores.
Perhaps most important, the break in the brood-rearing cycle provides a break in the Varroa cycle. The mites cannot reproduce when no honey bee brood is present.
Furthermore, you don’t want your colony population to peak before the nectar flow. If you build up your colony too soon, you will have a cajillion bees with nothing to eat. Not good.
As you can see, maintaining a sizable brood nest all winter long may not be the best thing for your bees, so it follows that stimulating brood production too early may not be wise. My rule of thumb for a hobby beekeeper is to withhold pollen substitute until after the winter solstice. The colony is attuned to changes in photoperiod, so after the solstice, as the hours of daylight gradually lengthen in the northern hemisphere, brood production naturally increases. To coincide with that increase, you can provide pollen.
Are there exceptions? Absolutely. Anyone who is going to move their bees into almonds or some other southern crop needs to build populations sooner than someone with stationary hives. Also, commercial beekeepers taking their bees into monoculture crops have to deal with the limited nutrition that comes with single-species foraging. So that is a second reason for feeding an enriched pollen diet. In fact, I think this is how all this early pollen feeding got started: the commercial keepers do it so everyone does it. But the commercial keepers have good reasons that the hobbyist normally doesn’t have.
We tend to think that if our colonies need sugar, they also need pollen. But aside from the fact that only larvae require it, pollen availability differs from nectar availability. Pollen is available earlier in the spring and later in the fall. We’ve all seen bees collecting pollen with snow on the ground, or in between winter storms. My bees are still bringing in pollen now, in mid-November, due to a warm spell.
Part of this is because many plants produce pollen even though they don’t produce nectar. Early trees like alder provide heaps of pollen without a trace of nectar. Grasses, evergreens, and many others are similarly pollen-heavy. I find it rare that a colony is actually short of pollen, either fresh or stored as bee bread.
Even so, there will be times when supplementing your bees with pollen is advantageous. Local weather and climate will have an impact on pollen supplies, as will the selection of local plants, the types of bees, the size of the colony, and many other factors. So by all means, if your colony needs pollen, give it to them. But for a normal colony in a normal year, I strongly recommend that you at least wait until after the solstice.
A few weeks ago, George Kelley, a Washington beekeeper, was called to look at a derelict chicken coop containing a large colony of honey bees. The coop had just lost a wall and the owner was afraid the bees would die. George went in, removed the hive, and installed the bees in their own hive. He sent along these interesting pics:
A new beekeeper in the Midwest wrote to say that she harvested thirty pounds of honey from each of her two hives, but now her bees were taking syrup like crazy. She wondered how long she should keep feeding and if the bees would have enough stores. Then came the disturbing question:
“Why would each of my two hives make 30 pounds of honey in the shallow supers for me before they made enough for themselves?”
Okay, new beekeepers, listen up: Your bees do not distinguish between the honey they store for themselves and the honey they store for you. In fact, they don’t know it will be taken; they believe it is all for them.
I have seen new beekeepers pull off their supers for extraction without even a glance into the brood boxes to check for honey. Sometimes those boxes are nearly empty. For whatever reason, the bees stored everything up high. Later, the beekeeper is heartbroken to find his bees starved to death only partway through the winter.
Two weeks ago a new beekeeper here in Olympia told me he harvested forty pounds of honey from his first-year hive that he started from a package in late April. I’m guessing he didn’t make a thorough inspection before he extracted because that is a lot of honey for a new colony in this part of the world. It doesn’t seem right to me.
Bees are unpredictable. This year I had two particularly robust colonies right next to each other in triple deeps. I added Ross Rounds and square section supers on top of each. In one hive, those crazy bees filled the sections and left their deeps virtually empty, while the adjacent colony did the opposite: they left the sections empty and filled the brood boxes to capacity.
I can understand how mistakes are made. New beekeepers are taught that the bees store their food in the brood boxes and the honey they put in the supers is for harvesting. But wait! This is a classic case of the bees not reading the same books. You have to look before you take.
In the example I just mentioned, I was able to equalize the honey stores between the two hives because one had a lot more than it needed. But, in any case, I always hold back some number of supers. I freeze the frames and store them. Then, if I err somewhere along the line, I can provide honey during the winter.
Some very experienced beekeepers routinely hold back frames as an insurance policy, and I strongly advise it for newbees. Or, if your brood boxes are really empty, just leave those supers in place for the bees. Remember, anyone can rob a hive and measure the take, but it requires skill (and often restraint) to successfully overwinter your bees.
Editor’s Note: Today’s post is written by Jim Withers, a six-year beekeeper who keeps 140 colonies in and around Genesee County, Michigan.
When I began blogging in January 2010, I averaged five readers per day but soon dropped to one per day in February. Still, I kept at it until one day someone named Jim Withers commented on a post I had written. I was elated! A live beekeeper with a real comment! Awesome!
But much to my horror, my husband—head of both the legal and engineering departments here at Honey Bee Suite—disagreed with Jim on some esoteric point of heat transfer and shot back a comment of his own. I was mortified: I had finally obtained a reader and now my husband was going to lose him for me!
But Jim turned out to be a worthy opponent who, with grace and intellect, defended his position and seemed not a bit offended. Best of all, he continued to follow my blog. He has been with me for four years now, and I think of him as a friend. Those who know Jim report he is just as he seems—kind, gentle, intelligent, generous, and absolutely passionate about his bees.
Is wrapping hives really necessary? I think not. Is wrapping hives helpful? I think so. A strong healthy colony with enough stores, and a home decently constructed, can survive most of the winters we have here in mid Michigan without the added protection. Then again, I’m certain that we could leave a few windows open in our home and survive the winter too. Not very energy efficient, but do-able. Shouldn’t we apply this same reasoning to our bee hives? I think adding a little protection to make the bees’ job of maintaining the cluster warmth a little easier makes sense.
Some beekeepers believe that insulation or wrapping (two different things) are bad ideas. Their position is that insulation will make it too warm in the hive causing the bees to be more active and, therefore, use up their stores more quickly. Also, because they consume more, they build up more fecal material, which may cause them to defecate in the hive. You can find much on that debate in magazine articles and books. In our mid-Michigan climate, I believe, insulation/wrapping allows them to burn less fuel (honey) to maintain cluster temperature. Additionally, it is typical to have a warm enough day every few weeks that allows for some cleansing flights. I will leave it to you to decide where you come down on that debate.
A wrapped hive has a layer of black roofing felt around it which takes advantage of solar gain on sunny days.
Let me clarify, first, a wrapped hive versus an insulated hive. A wrapped hive (which is what I do with full-size colonies) has a layer of black roofing felt around it which takes advantage of solar gain on sunny days. It doesn’t do much to prevent heat loss like insulation does. On a sunny day, however, it can raise the temperature inside the hive a few degrees. This could make enough difference to allow the cluster to move closer to honey stores. I have seen plenty of dead-outs with small clusters that, apparently, starved with honey in the hive, but just out of reach. Wrapping also helps seal out harsh winds. Although the bees seal up the joints between boxes with propolis, beekeepers usually mess up their nice mortar job when we inspect.
Insulation, measured in R-value, works by slowing heat transfer. I provide insulation for my overwintering nucs. In this case, the beekeeper adds some material around the hive, typically foam-board these days, to make it easier to keep the heat generated by the cluster in the hive. To be clear, the bees in cluster are not attempting to heat the entire hive, only the cluster itself. When there is no brood in the cluster, they maintain the center at around 70 degrees. When there is brood in the cluster, the temperature is kept around 90 to 95 degrees. The outside edges of the cluster are kept around 41 degrees. Below this, the bees would go into torpor and be unable to move. Even though the bees are not trying to heat the entire hive, the colder the ambient temperature, the more it will wick away the warmth generated by the cluster. Insulation will help to slow this.
Two final points before I describe my simple technique for wrapping: ventilation and overhead insulation. Too much moisture in a wintering hive is certainly a danger. Be sure to include an upper entrance for your bees to help ventilate some of the moisture out of the hive and to use for cleansing flights when the lower entrance becomes blocked with snow and ice. I also am a strong believer in insulating the very top of the hive. Think of a glass of ice water on a summer day. The very cold
water inside the glass causes the moisture in the surrounding air to condense on it. The same can happen on the underside of your inner cover. The relatively warmer moist air inside the hive can collect on the underside of your telescoping cover because of the very cold temperature outside. It could conceivably collect, freeze in layers over their heads, then rain down on them when a sunny day warms the lid. Now, think of an insulated mug. Same cold water inside, same warm moist air outside, but no
condensation on the mug. I highly recommend putting some type of insulation between your outer cover and your bees. A simple 1/2″ – 3/4″ piece of Styrofoam on the underside of your telescoping cover should suffice. I would use the stuff with a plastic coating to discourage the bees from tearing off little pieces and dragging them out when the weather warms a little in the spring. I would also take it out for the summer because ants like to tunnel into and make their home in it.
Here is my simple technique for wrapping. I will add pictures to clear up the confusion my description is sure to cause.
Cut a piece of 15# roofing felt into a piece about 80″ long (I am assuming a standard Langstroth hive). Its height should match whatever number of boxes you have between your bottom board and telescoping cover. I leave the option available to pop open the top of my hives to peek in on the girls during the winter. I use candy plates as an emergency feed measure and want to be able to add more if need be.
You will need a 1/2″ pan-head screw, or some other short screw with a washer, and a 3/4″ X 3/4″ piece of wood nearly the same length as the height of your roofing felt. I start a few 1-1/4″ drywall screws into this piece of wood to make the job easier. It’s also a good idea to drill holes where these screws are going to go to prevent splitting the wood.
I start by screwing the pan head screw through one end of the felt near the top and side of the hive to hold it in position while I wrap the felt around.
Once wrapped around, the felt should overlap a few inches. I then place the 3/4″ piece of wood along this overlap and screw it into position.
That’s it! It takes only a minute or two. The nice thing about this technique vs stapling is the ability to recover your wrapping to use again next year. It’s also much quicker and easier than tearing the felt off in pieces the following spring. Trust me on this one. I learned it the hard way.
I have included a couple of pictures of my hive top set-up, which is a candy board with solid top, a piece of 3/4″ styrofoam, my inner cover on top just for a spacer, and the telescoping cover. Note the upper entrance is part of the candy board. This gets a lot of use throughout the winter. It is also a good idea to place a nice rock or something heavy on your lid to prevent it from blowing off—another unfortunate incident my bees have endured.