Overwintered colonies that starve usually do so in early spring, just before the first nectar flows. In the northern climates, colonies may starve as late as April, even though everything appears green and lush.
Part of the reason is that many pollen plants bloom before nectar plants. Here in the Pacific Northwest, red alders flower early and sprinkle butter-hued drifts of pollen on car windshields and picnic tables. But pollen isn’t nectar and it doesn’t provide the sugar fix the honey bees need. Nectar-producing flowers may not appear for several weeks after those first dustings of pollen.
Then too, some of the earliest nectar supplies may be unavailable to honey bees due to inclement weather. To use another local example, big-leaf maples provide buckets of early nectar (and to-die-for honey) but in most years it is lost to spring rains that keep the honey bees inside. They can only look out their windows and sigh.
Consumption goes up while supplies go down
Aside from the weather, the annual life cycle of a honey bee colony puts it at risk of spring starvation. In the northern hemisphere, most colonies have plenty of food from the end of summer through December. During that period, the colony continues to shrink, brood rearing slows or stops altogether, and without brood, the colony keeps the nest cooler, at around 68°F (20°C). All of these factors reduce the daily food requirement.
But in the weeks following the winter solstice, the colony slowly reverses itself. Brood rearing begins again, and with brood rearing comes the need to keep the nest warmer, at around 93°F (34°C), give or take. On warmish days, the bees may venture out for cleansing flights, and flying bees use more fuel than clustering bees. On really warm days, they may actually attempt foraging, an activity that expends even more fuel.
Slowly at first, the hive population increases. Within weeks, the population gains momentum, and before you know it, there are many more mouths to feed. The food supply gets used up faster and faster as the supply gets lower and lower. It is easy to breathe a sigh of relief on that first April morning when you see your bees flowing out of the hive and playing in the sunshine. But depending on your local area, some of those colonies may not live to see May Day.
This year I took the unusual step of providing candy boards to all my colonies. Normally, I only supply them to colonies that lack sufficient honey stores. But after our unusually long, dry summer and parched autumn, I decided it was safer to feed everyone. With the candy boards in place, I relaxed. Bad move.
The population problem
It turns out that last Monday was a wake-up call for me. The weather was a balmy 55°F (13°C) with no rain, so I inspected every hive. What I found floored me.
My colonies are out of control. If I didn’t know it was January, I would have guessed it was May. My doubles have bees covering all twenty frames. My triples have bees covering 25 frames. Bees oozed from every seam, even along the sides. A few of the candy boards have golf ball-sized lumps of sugar remaining.
At first blush, you may think this is a good thing, but my immediate thought was, “How the heck can I keep these bees alive till spring?” In truth, I don’t know if I can. We still have two or maybe three months to get through and I’ve got about three times more bees than I had in October. Although I’ve seen this happen in the past, it was always an isolated hive or two, never an entire apiary.
Bad weather or bad management?
My first thought was to blame the weather. Okay, the weather is weird. Early in the winter we had a cold-snap that lasted about two weeks, but since then it has been warm—lots of days in the forties and even the fifties. The warm days could easily cause an early population increase.
On the other hand, I put pollen supplement in the candy boards. Normally, if I use pollen supplement at all, I don’t offer it until after the solstice. But this year, due to a poor foraging season, I put the boards on a month early. That may have been my big mistake: too much pollen too soon. I had buried the pollen patty inside the sugar, thinking that they wouldn’t get to it right away, but they excavated passages to it immediately.
Considering the alternatives
So now what? When I knock on the individual boxes, some sound dense, as though they may still contain honey. Since it’s warm, I can go in and rearrange the remaining honey frames, making sure they are above or immediately beside the cluster—except they aren’t in clusters, they are teeming mobs. Or I can go buy a pickup load of sugar, something that doesn’t appeal to me in the least. I’m still undecided.
I have to say, tiny clusters in winter worry me, but this worries me even more. I wonder where to go from here.
Honey Bee Suite