Stimulating Honeybees for 2014 Almond Pollination

feeding honeybees in winter // Wayward Spark

In late summer when many humans are beginning to reap the bounty of their gardens and to make plans for the harvest season, honeybee colonies already have their honey stores tucked away, and they’re starting to shut down in preparation for the winter. In September, workers will still have access to pollen, but the nectar flow will wane to a trickle. It will be time for a productive queen to lay the eggs for the colony’s overwintering population. After new brood emerges in October, the busy season’s workers will die off, and the young bees will start to cluster up during cooler weather.

Because Henry knew he was going to take all his full-size hives to California for almond pollination, he, like other commercial beekeepers, stimulated his bees from late summer into fall to increase the number of overwintering bees in each hive. He offered each colony three to four gallons of sugar syrup and five pounds of pollen substitute in three feedings to simulate a nectar flow and allow the bees to rear more brood when natural resources were scarce.

Commercial bee colonies are sized graded in units of “frames of bees”. One frame 75% covered in bees on both sides is considered a  “frame of bees”. Henry’s locally adapted bees would naturally overwinter at three to five frames, but with the extra stimulation of syrup and pollen substitute, they are boosted to around eight frames, making them rentable for almond pollination.

After feeding, Henry assessed each of his hives several times throughout September and October. He observed that some hives weren’t eating the syrup and pollen substitute, an indication of a heavy mite load and/or disease, so he factored them out of his count of rentable units, assuming they wouldn’t make it through the winter. Some of those colonies actually have survived the winter so far, but overall, his numbers are pretty much where he expected them to be, right around 100 rentable units plus about 50 nucs (single boxes). (Some singles might be rentable depending on the particular details of Henry’s contract with the almond grower.) Losses are inevitable in beekeeping, and there are always disappointments as well as pleasant surprises. As it stands now, about 10%  of Henry’s colonies have outperformed expectations, and another 10% died out unexpectedly (not including the ones he thought would die).

Between late September and the winter solstice in Oregon, a healthy honeybee queen will generally take a break from laying eggs, and the rest of the colony will just hunker down and try to conserve energy. As soon as the days start to get lighter (often imperceptible to us, but recognized by bees), the queen will begin to lay again. When he opened them up in the last two weeks, Henry observed that many of his hives already had two to three partial frames of capped brood. Worker bees are separated into different jobs (nurse, guard, forager, etc.) based on their age, and immediately after emerging from the cells, young bees take on their role as nurses, tending to the unhatched brood. It’s important that those first bees to hatch this year are healthy because they will be the ones to rear the beginnings of the spring population build up.

Henry’s bees will head to California later this week or early next week, and they’ll be on contract for pollination as early as February 10. Henry knows that his hives will have to meet the specs of his contract, so he fed “soft candy” cakes and pollen substitute again in the last week to encourage the next couple batches of brood to be larger and earlier than natural. He needs to have plenty of bees to take on nursing and other jobs when the overwintering bees begin to die off.

If a hive were left alone and not moved south, the population build up would be delayed for a couple weeks until alder pollen became available.

soft candy and pollen substitute for feeding bees in winter // Wayward Spark

The following is Henry’s winter feeding procedure. He is doing things differently than he did last year and will probably reform his methods next year. He is a relatively new beekeeper with some very non-traditional practices, some of which may be innovative, some of which might lead to failure.

Henry had bees hives in seven different locations in the Coast Range, so it took him several afternoons to feed them all.

soft candy for feeding bees in winter // Wayward Spark

Instead of the syrup that he fed in the fall, Henry mixed up a few batches of “soft candy”, a malleable concoction of 1 gallon cooking oil, 25 pounds of fine granulated baker’s special sugar, 2 mL each of lemongrass oil and thyme oil, and minerals. He formed the substance into one pound cakes. This is the first time he’s tried it, so the jury is still out about it’s effectiveness.

pollen substitute

He ordered a large quantity of 45-pound blocks of pollen substitute from Mann Lake, and cut it into 1.5 pound blobs (with a piece of smooth fence wire).

feeding honeybees in winter // Wayward Spark

In addition to feeding the bees, Henry also wanted to spend at least a short time observing each of his hives and making sure his rentable hive count was more or less accurate. Normally, a beekeeper would avoid breaking the cluster of bees by separating the top and bottom box when it’s is less than 50° out, but Henry chose fairly nice days (upper 40s) for feeding, and things seem to have gone okay.

Some beekeepers use spacers between the top box and the lid for feeding, but Henry is not fond of spacers for many reasons.

feeding honeybees in winter // Wayward Spark

He started by prying the boxes apart with his hive tool.

feeding honeybees in winter // Wayward Spark

Smoke moved the bees away from the area where he was going to place the feed.

feeding honeybees in winter // Wayward Sparkfeeding honeybees in winter // Wayward Spark

feeding honeybees in winter // Wayward Spark

He placed a cake of sugar and a pollen patty toward the front of the cluster.

feeding honeybees in winter // Wayward Spark

feeding honeybees in winter // Wayward Spark

As quickly as possible, he replaced the top box and squished the sugar and pollen into the frames by pressing down on the lid. In warm weather, the bees are able to get out of the way before getting mashed, but there will always be some losses.

Henry estimates that he was stung about 30 times during the hour of feeding the 16 hives in these photos.

winter cluster of honeybees // Wayward Spark

The size of a winter cluster does not necessarily forecast a colony’s ability to survive the winter, but Henry needs mostly larger clusters to make the grade for his pollination contract. The hive above would probably be considered four to six frames.

winter cluster of honeybees // Wayward Sparkstrong hive in winter // Wayward Spark

This hive (above) is strong, probably 12 frames. Frame numbers are somewhat subjective because the same number of bees can look more or less numerous depending on the shape of the cluster and its position in the hive.

Henry appreciates getting an idea of how his colonies look now, but there’s still another month of rearing brood and dying off before his hives need to meet the grade.

Last year, Henry took 20 hives down to almonds with his beekeeper friend Ethan Bennett of Honey Tree Apiaries. This year, he will have at least five times as many hives and will be sharing trucking with another Oregon beekeeper and filling a contract with an established California beekeeper who’s a really stand-up good guy. Henry will head to California soon for about a week of working his bees before leaving them to pollinate the almond bloom, the world’s largest honeybee pollination event.

We still have jars of Henry’s Old Blue Raw Honey with added honeycomb available online here if you’re interested.