Overwintering bees

Overwintering has been a great concern for me over the past few weeks.

This is where my path and other beekeepers’ paths start to diverge a little. Actually, it is important to appreciate how little is known about bees and how difficult it is to find the right information on the internet or through libraries. Just as an indication, a search on “bees” on Amazon Books, comes up with “over 20,000” results. The same search on “dogs” or “cats”, comes up with “over 60,000” and “over 50,000” results respectively. Why am I mentioning this though? Well, because a limited “worldwide” knowledge means new, amateur beekeepers have to learn from the nearest, experienced ones.

Hence, a lot of the advice I receive comes from other beekeepers I interact with. Unfortunately, I do not always agree with what I am advised to do and overwintering bees is one of those examples. It turns out, several beekeepers (new and experienced) believe that there is no harm in taking the honey that bees have stored in the supers and replacing it with fondant over the winter, if required. The explanation they give me is that bees prefer these feeds over honey because it is easier to process these into carbs instead of honey. On the other hand, I have never heard my grandfather doing such a thing and when I did ask him about this, he was appalled by the thought alone. One of the reasons my grandfather added to why he never did this, was because the bees will inevitably store some of the sugar and syrup in the hive together with the honey, the same honey that would later be extracted and sold.

As I instinctively will follow my grandfather’s far more experienced advice, I have made the decision as a beekeeper that the bees will always take priority over any honey I would like to collect. This way, bees can get the food and nutrition they have so painstakingly produced over the season and any leftovers can be my reward for being their guardian.

This brings me on to my next point of concern, which is whether the bees themselves will have saved enough honey by the end of the season to last them the winter. My grandfather suggested that you should always leave at least 9 frames of honey for the bees to overwinter, but that was for full-sized colonies in Cyprus, what about my (smaller) colony in the UK? And what about a winter in the UK similar to last year’s? A dig on the online world of knowledge, suggested anything from 20-40 kg of honey, depending on how severe winter is (the web also suggests that each brood frame can hold about 4kg of honey when full). So I guess my grandad was right to suggest at least 9 frames.

But what about my own bees? How much have they stored? Well, based on my last inspection, they have a total of 3.5 brood frames full of honey and 2 super frames. Does that mean they are only half way to their Q3 target? Does it mean they will run out of stores mid-winter? Will I resort to feeding them fondant, just to help them survive against the natural odds? If I do have no other choice but to feed them external feed, is there a better option than fondant? I know there are also sugar syrup, ambrosia (an artificially produced liquid feed) and honey as alternatives, but which will be the best in these circumstances? Or are the estimates on a full sized colony and not a smaller one like mine? Could half the colony size be ok with half the honey stores for winter?

These are the kind of thoughts going on through my mind right now. It feels as though, regardless of how much research I do, the decision will have to come from my own judgement. The trouble is, my selfless decision on this moral dilemma might be the exact reason why I fail to do the selfless thing in the end.

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