feeding bees spring management

Should you trust your bees to Phil?

Saturday February 2 was Groundhog Day, one of my favorite celebrations. First thing I did was look out my window to see a bleak and dreary northwest morning. I announced to my husband that spring was just around the corner because that is the way the groundhog thing works—opposite of what you might think. If the groundhog sees his shadow, we will have six more weeks of winter weather; if not, spring is close.

Of course, Phil doesn’t live here in Washington, he lives in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. But being a Pennsylvania girl myself, I always play along. According to news reports, thousands of people arrive in the small town every year to witness the event. And guess what? No shadow this year. Spring is coming.

It was interesting though, because by 12:30 the sun had arrived in my yard and bees were pouring through their reduced openings. They circled above the hives, dipped and spiraled, congregated on the landing boards. It is unusual to see so many honey bees this early in the year. Maybe they were celebrating Phil’s finding or maybe they were desperate to use the facilities.

Apparently, the same weather pattern hit Tennessee. Herb Lester, my correspondent for all things bee down there, sent these hive photos. Same thing: the morning was bleak, but by afternoon the hive was clearly casting a shadow.

But here’s the catch, regardless of whether Phil is right or wrong, honey bees this active in February are going to burn through their honey stores with the speed of light. If you are having an unusually warm winter, if your bees are actually flying, do not forget to check on them every couple of weeks. More colonies die of starvation in the late winter/early spring than at any other time of the year. Remember, never trust your bees to a 126-year-old groundhog.


Early on Groundhog Day: no shadow. Photo by Herb Lester Apiaries.

Early on Groundhog Day: no shadow. Photo by Herb Lester Apiaries.

Later on Groundhog Day: sharp shadow. Photo by Herb Lester Apiaries.

Later on Groundhog Day: sharp shadow. Photo by Herb Lester Apiaries.

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  • We had THREE spells of 60-degree weather in January, one followed by teens, the next two by single digits. While it was warm, they were out by the hundreds. On the warm days I was fortunate to have friends on hand to help pop the lids quickly & check on the sugar cakes. My hope was to keep them from flying off to forage, especially when it went from 60 one morning to 5 above the next! So far, all seven are alive, and eating their way steadily through the sugar.

    A question, though: at one point I added pollen-substitute patties, and usually there’s been just a few bees on each one. But one hive was ALL OVER theirs – more than on the sugar cake. Does that mean there’s something else they need?


    • Nan,

      They usually start eating pollen patties when brood rearing accelerates. Your one hive is probably doing more of that than the others—it’s not unusual. It sounds to me like they are doing fine. Just give them more if they use up what they have, and don’t worry about the other colonies.

  • Thanks for reminder that more active means more eating. My girls have been flying frequently this winter, but last check, it seemed they hadn’t touched sugar or pollen patty. I harvested very little honey for myself, so hopefully they are still well-supplied. I will be sure to check later this week when we’re expecting another warm-up.

  • Rusty,

    Are you over wintering your bees in these tall hives pictured on this post? What is the advantage if any? I would think it would be hard to tend the bees in cold weather months.



    • Bill,

      The hives pictured do not belong to me but to Herb Lester in Tennessee. However, I’m overwintering in triple deeps this year and I’m a believer. Read this post for the full explanation: “Rethinking the triple-deep hive.” When the bees are tucked into a triple deep for the winter, you shouldn’t have to tend them, which is the whole point.

  • What do you call that when a colony starves in the middle of winter? A die-off? A starve-out?

    I wasn’t able to check on my hives for all of December and January. When I finally checked on them yesterday, to give them some sugar, I found one of the colonies was dead, and by the looks of it, starved out. Or maybe the bees froze to death. We’ve had exceptionally cold weather so far this winter.

    I’ve posted a photo and a short video. The cluster was above the top bars several frames were also full of bees. I didn’t have a chance for a close examination of the frames.

    Can you (or anyone) hazard a guess as to what killed the bees? No food or no heat? or both?

    • Hey Phillip,

      It’s hard to know for sure, but I think they starved. For one thing, it looks like they all went at once (more or less); they didn’t die slowly over a long period. Second, it’s a big winter cluster that would have required a lot of food. Third, they were high in the box where they would be looking for food. Fourth (although I can’t see well enough to be sure) it looks like they were munching the edges of the box, which is also a sign of starving. Without food, they can’t generate enough heat, so those two are related. Still, one out of seven isn’t bad, especially with no supplements.

    • Phillip,

      Because serious efforts are made by the living bees to remove dead bees from the cluster. If they can’t take them outside, they at least drop them to the bottom board. When a colony dies slowly, most dead bees are removed completely or piled on the bottom and the remaining cluster is small. In your case, it appears they were all alive until the very last minute because the cluster is essentially full-size, not dwindling.

      • Excellent. That make solid sense to me. (This is me nodding my head.) Thanks.

        I’m curious to see what I find in a couple weeks when I have a chance to bring the entire hive home and examine it frame by frame.

        I don’t mind so much that this happened now, going into my third winter with six other colonies still hanging in there. (I’m also glad to have an extra 20 frames of drawn comb.) It would have a big blow if it happened during my first year. One dead colony was 50% of all my bees then.

  • Hi Rusty, your blog reminded me of one of my favorite movies, Groundhog Day starting Bill Murray. Murray plays the part of Phil, a negative newscaster who is doomed to repeat the same day over and over until he gets his life in order. I would bet beekeepers and non beekeepers would like to do some days over. I know I would.