After a few weeks of sub-freezing temperatures, we had a warm few hours in the mid 50’s F on Febuary 1st, 2014 where I was able to check the status of 50 colonies at my home I’m evaluating as potential queen mother colonies. Still being winter, I did not want to break up the cluster very much to do things like count varroa mites, so I only did a simple evaluation of adult bee population.
This winter has been pretty good to the colonies. There hasn’t been much fluctation in temperatures, which causes them to use up their stores too fast. Although I would like to see larger populations in the hives, most were strong enough and I’ve only lost 5 out of 50 (10%) so far. The national average, yearly winter loss hovers around 30%.
Here are some more stats. Of the 45 surviving colonies on Febuary 1st, 2014, they averaged in strength at 4.5 deep frames of adult bees (median value was 4 frames). The top 25% colonies had 6 or more deep frames of adult bees. While the bottom 25% had 3 or fewer frames of bees, wich leaves 50% of the colonies having between 3 and 6 frames of bees. The bottom 25% is concerning, but at this stage of spring, even those have a good chance of doing OK. The selected queen mothers for 2014 will most likely be chosen from the top 25% in this measure. However, its still too early to say. Some other colonies might really take off, or some of these might dwindle if they develop a virus problem from too many varroa mites.
Winter feeding of bees
Early Febuary is a good time to look for colonies that need emergency feeding. As the day length and temperatures increase and the colonies begin to raise brood, they can quickly use up the rest of their stores and starve as the cold, rainy weather sets back in after warm spells. The maple trees can produce a great deal of nectar here in Febuary, stimulating brood rearing.
Late divides and overwintering nucs, or small colonies.
As an experiemnt this year, I tried to overwinter 14 nucleus colonies I made late in summer. Only 2 are likely to survive. I tried to overwinter these nucs mostly because lots of other people get excited about the idea of overwintering nucs. I’ve always been skeptical of the utility of this concept in our area, not because our winters are exceptionally cold, but for other reasons. One is that small colonies in late summer, early fall often get robbed out by other bees and destroyed by hive beetles. Then, you can’t really treat them for mites with organic methods, because they are not strong enough. During winter, our temperatures often fluctuate and stimulate brood rearing in late January as the days get longer. If a small colony raisies some brood, they will not be able to get to the nearby stored honey or emerency sugar when the temperature inevitably drops again, and they starve. Finally, if they make it to spring, they will not be strong enough to both warm up a large enough area to raise much brood and have a strong enough field force to take full advantage of the maple tree bloom in Febuary.
A strong colony can raise many, many bees in early spring that can be divided later in spring multiple times and still make honey, while small colonies rarely grow to a size that can both be divided and make honey. I recomend if you want more nucs in spring, to overwinter more strong colonies, build them up early in spring with supplemental feeding, and divide them just before they swarm.