Checking Hives In February

In a “normal” year, February brings deep snow in our area.  This is year we have seen cold sunny days, cold overcast days, rain, a few sunny 50-degree (F) days, and now, as I write this, snow.  During the sunny days, the bees flew and I had a chance to check out two of my bee yards.

Storm Clouds and trees near Brookfield Farm, Maple Falls, WA

a nice February day

Honeybees look up from topbars in a Brookfield FArm hive, Maple Falls, WA

Bees Between Bars

I chose the upriver bee yards, on and near my farm, because 1) this area is the hardest on the bees, with the coldest weather and longer winter and 2) it’s near my farm, why not start where one is standing?

The Winter Loses, So Far:

One nuc and one full hive are dead.

The nuc was over wintering on another hive, but not the hive that failed.  I suspect the queen wasn’t strong enough or didn’t produce enough bees to face the winter, but just to check, I have sent off a sample of what little brood remained to the Maryland Bee Lab to check for disease.

One full hive in another yard was lost due to queen failure.  They had tried to supersede, sometime in the fall.  My guess would be in October, as this very strong hive had not yet consumed much of its winter honey.  All nectar flows stop around here by early November.

Over all I’m pleased.  That’s one hive and one nuc lost out of 29 hives and 4 nucs checked so far.  It must be rememberd that, around here, February can be deceiving.  As I said, it’s now snowing.  And once spring does arrive we get “Spring Dwindling”: that ever so depressing loss of bees in the spring that often seem to be doing just fine one day and dead the next.  The cause can range from nosema, to a queen that laid up early in the year, then was superseded before drones flew, to beekeeper error during spring inspections (otherwise known as squashing the queen).

Winter Clusters : Some Big, Some Little

Overwintering Honeybees

A Strong Hive

The hives looked pretty good in general.  Some had smaller clusters.  Some were more populated.  But nearly all the hives had more than enough food to get them through to April.

A small group of honeybees in a February hive at  Brookfield Farm, Maple Falls, WA

A Small Cluster

Honey Consumption

Three hives were running short of food.  Happily, the hive that had lost its queen had been left with a lot of honey.  So that honey was handed out to the three hives in need.  One hive that had been left a lot of food had reduced itself to a small, but functional, cluster, and had yet to start consuming the box of honey above them, much less the one above that.  So they donated to the cause.

Opening the top of an overwintering hive

Moving insulation & burlap to see the top bars.

I do not have issues feeding fondant in the winter (not shown here, the white piece is insulation).  Feed is better than starvation.  However, I think of fondant as emergency food.  If I’m feeding it, either I have made a huge mistake in judging the amount of food I left the bees, or the weather has gone truly wonky (hotter/wetter/colder than normal), or I have a hive of bees that I don’t really want.  I need bees that overwinter in small clusters here.  Our winters usually run from November to March, and April can often been day after day of rain.

Frames of Honey being sorted to give to bee hives at Brookfield Farm, Maple Falls, WA

Dividing Up Honey

In either case (my error or the wrong type of bees) if I need to feed and I have honey available, I will always feed honey before sugar.  The issue with this is that if there is American Foulbrood in the honey, it can spread through the infected honey.  (I killed and burned 4 hives last year, which had American Foulbrood.  None of those hives were from the bee yards I checked this month).

In general I was pretty pleased at the rate of feed consumption in my hives.  I don’t often get to look in February, so it’s nice to know that the way I set the hive’s honey and pollen stores in worked well.

Pollen Consumption

I did take apart the majority of the hives.  It was sunny, but nights were cold, and you never know what weather the next day will bring in the Pacific Northwest.  In the few hives that I did delve into I found that they had all eaten the pollen they had laid up last year.  In my hive set up, every hive retains all their pollen frames – usually in the bottom box of the hives.

Winter Feed Layout
I use something of a semi-pyramid formation in the hives each winter.
I use westerns (medium hive bodies) for everything.  I have ten frame westerns.
After I pull honey in the September, this is my hive set up:

The bottom box of the hive is the bees’ frames of pollen
This can have ten frames across the box.

The next box up is their brood.
This has eight to ten frames
If eight frames: positions 1 and 10 are wooden follower boards

If there is a lot of brood, the next box up is brood as well.
Again eight to ten frames with follower boards.

The next two boxes are honey.
Eight frames with follower boards at each end in the first (lower) honey box
Six to eight frames with follower boards in the top most honey box

Nothing is perfect in nature.  So sometimes the frames are mixed : brood and pollen and honey, brood and pollen and so on.  Doing this in September gives my bees about four to six weeks to rearrange things the way they want them before the cold weather hits.

As the bees reduce in number during the winter, they travel up though the hive in a smaller and smaller cluster.  Years ago I realized that the bees were never getting to frames one and ten in their first box of honey, nor did they get to one, two, nine, and ten in the top most box.  Thus the “semi-pyramid” was

This seems to work for me.  But I must say that I breed off of hives whose bees are darker, fly earlier and later (in both the day and year), overwinter in small tight clusters, and stop their queen from laying when food gets scarce.

Those four hives that needed food were duly marked – they may supply bees for splits, but they will not be chosen to produce queens.

That’s the news from Brookfield Farm Bees And Honey in Maple Falls.  If the snow stops and the sun comes out, I’ll head further up river for some cross-country skiing.

Upper Northfork of Nooksack River, winter, near Brookfield Farm, Maple Falls

a few miles up river from the farm

It rains and snows here, but we still live in one of the most beautiful places in the world: the foothills of Mt. Baker in Washington state’s northern Cascades.

About Bean

I am the beekeeper at Brookfield Farm Bees And Honey, near Maple Falls, Washington. My bees fly from naturally treated, antibiotic-free hives in the foothills of Mt. Baker (the second most glaciated volcano in Washington). I sell the raw honey my bees make, as well as honey produced by Washington beekeepers who are friends - the emphasis is on raw honey from naturally treated, antibiotic-free hives. I also make and sell Beeswax Salves. You can find me at the Ballard Farmers' Market in Seattle on Sundays from 10-3. When not with the bees, you'll most likely meet me up some mountain trail, pinhole camera and digital camera slung over my shoulders, and my pack goats trailing behind me.
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