Since we’ve had some unseasonably warm days, many of you are asking when to remove quilt boxes and feeders. Others want to know what to do with all the bees in the candy boards and when you should reverse boxes.
Let’s look at the good news first. The fact that it’s February and you’re wondering how to handle all those bees is fantastic. It means your colony made it through the darkest part of winter and you’re heading toward spring.
The bad news is that winter is not over. Don’t assume that cold days and winter dearth are history. I’ve seen more colonies starve in late March and early April than at any other time of year.
Pollen is not nectar
Don’t be fooled by your bees’ activity. Today my bees are out there doing the Olympic thing. All dressed in matching outfits, they’re circling in the cold and posturing for the camera. But just because they’re flying doesn’t mean that winter is over, nor does it mean the bees are finding food. Many times early foragers bring in lots of pollen, and that can be confusing. It depends on your area, but many plants shed pollen early in the year—even in January and February—long before nectar is available.
Here on the Pacific Northwest coast, for example, red alder catkins are hanging low and shedding a creamy-yellow pollen in vast quantities. But alders don’t supply nectar. And although alder pollen is fine for bees, by itself it does not provide a balanced diet. Many other wind-pollinated trees and plants also shed early pollen, and that’s good. The thing to remember is full pollen baskets do not mean your bees are also finding nectar.
Foraging burns fuel
Remember, too, that bees out foraging are using lots of energy. If they do not find nectar, they must consume more of the remaining food in the hive. Plus, the pollen flow stimulates the bees to raise brood. An increase in brood means there are many more mouths to feed, so the rate of food consumption in the hive increases dramatically. If you’ve been feeding once every two weeks in the winter, you may have to feed once a week now.
If there was ever a time to monitor food consumption in a hive, this is it. The interval starting with spring flight and ending at the first sizable nectar flow is critical. More brood and more activity means increased food consumption just when stores are getting low. I know all about this, having made this mistake more than once.
It’s impossible for me to tell you when to remove your feeders. The thing is, you need to look inside the hive. If your bees have honey, they most likely won’t need a feeder. As the air temperature rises, the bees will break cluster and find the honey they may have missed while clustered. If they have no stores, you need to feed them until there is plenty of nectar coming in.
The same holds true for pollen. If they have bee bread stored, they’re probably fine. If they have no pollen except for the stuff collected from wind-pollinated plants, then a pollen supplement isn’t a bad idea. It all comes down to what your bees are finding in your area. If you want to play it safe, adding some feed along with a pollen supplement won’t hurt anything.
Personally, I only have one rule for feeders: the feeders must be off before the honey supers go on. All the rest is noise. If there is hard candy remaining in the feeders, I just toss it in a bucket and keep it until I want to make syrup.
When to remove quilt boxes
As for moisture quilts, I take them off when I replace my solid inner covers with screened inner covers. If you don’t use screened inner covers, take the moisture quilts off when the air temperature is warm enough to keep the hive dry. If you remove the quilts and then find water condensing and dripping onto your frames, you took them off too soon.
For me, I’d rather leave them on too long than not long enough. I’ve accidentally left them on into hot weather with no ill effects. I just think, “Oh, how did I miss that?” and take it off. The Earth keeps turning and the bees keep doing what bees do. Don’t worry so much.
Bees in the candy boards
And what should you do if the candy boards and feeders are full of bees? Well, you can smoke them down, which works pretty well. If the candy board is nearly empty, you can turn it over and tap it until most of the bees fall into the hive. Or, if it’s warm, you can take off the candy board and lean it against the hive and the bees will find their own way in. Or you can use a bee brush and flick them out. Or you can use an escape board between the candy board/feeder and the brood box. For heaven’s sake, you’re a beekeeper. You can solve this.
Reversing brood boxes
A related question concerns reversing brood boxes. I never reverse boxes and don’t intend to start. It’s been demonstrated many times that bees move up in winter, down in summer. Reversing is practiced by people who believe bees always move up, or who are too impatient to wait. But as we’ve discussed before, look at a tree cavity, an open air colony, or a colony in the framing of a house. Where do the bees build in spring? Under the existing combs. They only go up if you give them a place to go.
Except for monitoring the food supply, most of these timing decisions are about the beekeeper. You should do what feels right to you, what makes you happy. If you want to reverse boxes, do it soon and do it often. If you want to remove your quilt on the first 60 F day, go for it. If you want to try talking your bees out of the feeder, knock yourself out. It’s all about making the beekeeper happy. For the most part, the bees are at their “happiest” when you finally walk away.
Honey Bee Suite