Inside: The amount of honey a colony will need for winter depends on factors that are hard to calculate. For best results, leave more than you think is necessary.
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Honey consumption depends on winter conditions
How much honey will your bees need for winter? Good question. But before I answer, here’s a question for you: How much heating fuel will your household use this winter?
Well, you say, that is complex. It depends on where you live, your local climate, and the size and geometry of your house. It depends on what type of furnace you have, how warm you like it, and how many people live there. In addition, it depends on how much insulation you have, whether you have windbreaks, and what color it is. And it depends on air leaks and ventilation and the building materials. It depends on whether the seasons are early or late. And on and on.
Your bee colony has different issues, of course, but just as many. The climate and weather, the amount of ventilation, the structure of the hive, the number of bees, the genetics of your bees, the number of warmish days, and the number of especially cold ones are some obvious examples. The fact is, you can’t predict exactly how much honey a colony will need, so you should estimate on the high side.
How much honey does an average colony use in winter?
I checked dozens of sources and found an amazing amount of agreement on general guidelines. Colonies in the southern U.S. may thrive on as little as 40 pounds (18 kg), those in the middle states need about 60 pounds (27 kg), and northern bees may require 80 or 90 (36-41 kg). Those are average numbers for average years and average hives. What’s the average? That’s another vital question.
In all but the warmest areas, I recommend a beekeeper leave 80 to 90 pounds (36-41 kg) of honey on a winter hive. (Or about 90 to 100 pounds if you are including the weight of the box and the bees.) Most times, this will assure an adequate supply of natural food for your bees, and it will save you messing around with syrups and sugars and supplements. In short, it’s good for them and good for you.
If you are overwintering a nuc (nucleus hive) in a cold climate, allow about eight full deep frames, the equivalent of about 64 pounds of honey. Although nucs seem small, they undergo super-rapid growth in the spring.
How to estimate the amount of honey in a frame
The Mann Lake catalog used to have estimates for the weight of full boxes. According to them, a full ten-frame deep weighs 80-90 pounds (36-41 kg), and a full ten-frame medium weighs 65-75 pounds (29-34 kg).
Discounting the weight of the structure and dividing by 10, a full deep frame holds about 8 pounds (4 kg) of honey and full medium holds about 6 pounds (3 kg). (If you evenly space nine frames in a ten-frame box, a full frame will weigh a bit more because the bees draw thicker combs.)
According to Caron and Conner (2013), the ideal fall colony will have brood in the center of the lowest box. This will be flanked with frames of honey and pollen, and the two outermost frames will be filled with just honey. The second deep box should be filled to the brim with honey—all ten frames.
Applying the math to their ideal colony, you will have 12 deep frames completely full of honey, which gives you (8 x 12) or 96 pounds (44 kg), plus any additional that is stored on the pollen frames.
This setup should get you through any winter, but in the more temperate states, you could easily replace the second deep with a medium, which would give you (6 x 12) or 72 pounds (33 kg) of honey plus any additional on the pollen frames.
Warning #1: Look before you harvest
A common error that new beekeepers make is harvesting the honey supers without checking the brood boxes for honey stores. You cannot assume the deeps are full just because the honey supers are full. Often the bees use one or both brood boxes for brood and pollen during most of the season. Not until late in the year do they store honey closer to the brood nest.
If you take off the supers without checking for honey below, you may leave your bees with almost nothing for the winter. So above all, remember to look before you take.
Warning #2: Most colonies starve in spring
Every year, thousands of bee colonies die of starvation just as the spring nectar begins to flow. I can think of two main reasons for this.
First, the population of bees in a colony increases after the winter solstice, about December 21. So a colony in February and March needs much more food than it did in November and December.
Second, when beekeepers see flowers in the lawn or on the trees, they may sigh with relief, thinking that now that things are blooming, the bees won’t starve. But not all flowers produce nectar and not all days are warm enough for bees to fly. Don’t risk making the mistake that flowers = food. If their food stores are low, feed them!
Frequently asked questions
Once you estimate the amount of honey your bees will need for winter, you can remove the rest. Remember that the further the honey is from the brood nest, the less likely your bees will use that honey because it is too cold. But more to the point, some other creature may decide to use it if it’s not being patrolled by the bees that own it.
If you remove the honey, you can save it for the bees in case they need it later. Or you can harvest it. You can even feed harvested honey back to your bees if you discover they need it.
On the other hand, honey has a high thermal mass, meaning that a hive with lots of honey will not change temperature as fast as an empty one. It means that during the night, the hive temperature will not drop as fast, but during the day, it won’t warm up as fast. A stable temperature is most often a good thing.
It is never too cold to feed your bees. If your bees need food during cold weather, you have two choices. One, you can open the hive, feed them quickly, and probably lose some bees. Or two, you can not feed them and let the entire colony die of starvation.
Apparently, beekeepers have trouble with this concept. Each year, dozens of people tell me they didn’t feed their bees because it was too cold, and then they all died. No surprise.
You can overfeed bees in the spring and summer if it causes the colony the swarm. This can happen if the queen runs out of places to lay more eggs.
However, in preparation for winter, it is basically impossible to overfeed. But remember, feed doesn’t have the same nutrient profile as honey, so a majority of their winter feed should be honey, if possible. If no honey is available, add a pollen supplement after the winter solstice when brood rearing begins anew.
Honey is always the best feed for bees, but sometimes you don’t have it. And because bees will not drink syrup that gets too cold (less than about 50 degrees F), something like fondant, sugar cakes, or dry granulated sugar are good choices.
If your colony is thriving, you can stop feeding your bees when nectar-producing flowers begin to bloom. Often, flowers like dandelions are among the first to open in early spring. If you see honey bees foraging on them, that’s a good sign that the temperature is warm enough to wean them from their feed.
In any case, stop feeding your bees before adding honey supers to your hive because you don’t want syrup stored in them. Save the supers for pure honey.
In the fall, when you’re feeding to maximize winter stores, you can feed as long as the bees keep eating. At that time of year, you can’t feed too much.
Cold syrup in a hive won’t hurt your bees, but it won’t help them either. Once the syrup becomes too cold for the bees, it just sits there and eventually grows mold.
Once daytime temperatures drop below about 57° F, you should switch to a solid sugar board or granulated sugar instead. Solid food does not chill the bees the way liquid food can.
In an emergency, some beekeepers heat the syrup, which can work long enough to tide the bees over until you install a different feeding system.
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