Copper Bee Apiary

A garden apiary in Whittlesford, Cambridge, UK - honey bees and their beekeeper Hilary van der Hoff.

In the Dead of Winter

I've been away from my bees, engaged in the turmoil of moving house, and days went past when I scarcely thought of them. When I did think of them, it was usually with a pang of guilt, worrying that they were starving. I knew that if they were still alive their food consumption would be increasing as they initiated the new year's brood nest, burning through their stores to bring the colony temperature up to about 37 degrees C for brood rearing.

Having all but convinced myself that the colonies had already starved to death, I went to see them today. First I checked that the hive entrances were clear, hooking inside with the end of a wire coat hanger to clear dead bodies, just in case a pile-up of corpses could block the doorway if the undertaker bees weren't keeping on top of things. At this time of year, the death rate is much higher than the birth rate, and the surviving bees have hundreds of bodies to carry out every day. Then I had a look with the thermal camera. Here's what it showed:

Long live Queen Mab!

Long live Queen Mab!

A warm body of live bees in Queen Mab's hive!

But were there only 1 out of 3 colonies alive? No - the other two clusters were just at the back of their hives, as a look from the other side showed:

I had taken with me some "sugar cakes" by way of emergency food supplies. To make them, I poured white granulated sugar into little brown paper bags, which I then folded up, poked holes in and sprayed with water. Here they are in a tray ready for transport to the hives:

Emergency food: sugar cakes

Emergency food: sugar cakes

The idea is this: although their best and natural source of energy is honey, bees can eat sugar to keep them going. Beekeepers commonly feed sugar to their bees in the form of fondant (packs of cake icing) or syrup (sugar dissolved in water) to supposedly compensate the bees for the stolen honey. I'm sure the bees notice. It's not something I intend to do routinely, because I would rather leave the bees enough of their honey. But I'm doing it this winter because I overestimated how much honey they would store last summer.

Placed over the holes in the crown board, the outer layer of sugar in the paper bags should become damp from the warm water vapour rising from the breathing bees clustered underneath. The bees can get to this damp sugar through the holes in the bag, and feed on it directly. The reason I sprayed the bags with water the previous evening is that the dampness causes the outer layer of sugar to form a hard crust, stopping it from all running out through the holes in the bags when they are placed cut-side down on the crown board. It seemed to work. I gave one sugar bag to Queen Lois's colony and two sugar bags to Queen Nefertiti's. On Queen Mab's hive I set a super of crystallised honey that was left over from last year. Not wanting to remove the crown board and expose the bees to the cold, I simply set the super on the crown board and put the roof on top, in the hope that the bees will be able to move up into the super if they need to, or that they will at least retrieve the honey from it even if the cluster does not cross the crown board. We'll find out in spring! Meanwhile the thermal camera will be a handy spying device to see where the bees are.

I am glad they are alive! Now to keep them that way until spring. That was a small dose of sugar, and we shall see how quickly they eat it - if they do at all.

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