FALL & WINTER TIPS IN CENTRAL TEXAS
Beekeeping is an activity that is very both local and tied to the seasons, and here in Central Texas, it’s this time of the year again….
The waning of daylight hours and the reduction in nectar and pollen have signaled to the queen it is time to stop laying eggs, at least in significant quantities. By now the colony should have raised or be well on its way to raising Winter bees, which thanks to a different metabolism will survive for months on oversized fat bodies, and outlive regular workers bees so they can take care of the Queen during the Winter and be there to raise the first batch of new bees in the Spring.
Good beekeepers know that, once the cold sets in, it is not recommended to crack those propolis seals and expose the bees. So, as the colony numbers begin to decrease and the cold days become more consistent, they need to make the last of their overwintering preparations by:
topping off colonies who are too light to get through the Winter on their current reserves,
batting down the hatches as the cold sets in by making sure the hives are fairly tight and well protected from weather related troubles.
The good news is that our Winters are typically mild, and cold in itself is not usually a huge issue around here.
The bad news is that our Winters are typically mild, and starvation is usually the biggest threat to a healthy colony.
So, here are some things to consider here in Central Texas as you finalize Winter preps:
We have mild Winters with some forage available nearly year round, but we also have periods of dearth that can take a toll on even the healthiest of colonies. The most dangerous ones are during the hottest part of the Summer, just when the bees are starting to prep for the Winter, and in the early Spring, when colonies start to brood up but cold weather snaps and depleted honey reserves might catch them off guard.
As a matter of fact, here in Texas, our bees do not really die of exposure – but they often starve.
How much do you need to leave a colony for Winter? Well, as with everything in beekeeping, it depends... it depends on the type of hive you have, your bees (genetics and numbers), the weather, air leaks, whether you have a wind break, etc. The fact is, you cannot predict how much each colony will need to sustain the cold months and especially the active warmer days of Winter (a real issue here in Texas) and make it to the first nectar, therefore it is always better to estimate on the high side. To be safe, we recommend around 80lbs of honey on a mature sized, healthy colony (of 2 deep brood chambers on a Lang or 15-20 bars of bees on a Top-Bar Hive) - the equivalent of a full deep of honey - to assure a good supply of natural food... this will save you messing around with syrups and sugars and supplements. In short, it is good for them and good for you.
If you are concerned that your bees won’t have enough, here is what you can do:
Don't ever harvest any more honey than what the bees have stored in surplus and then feed them sugar syrup: that's not good for them.
As a rule of thumb, plan ending the season with about a minimum of 40-50lbs total weight per deep hive body on a Langstroth, or at minimum the equivalent of 4 deep combs (or 6 mediums) of honey per deep 10F brood box (below you will find an easy way to use a makeshift scale to measure hive weight. Note it down and compare it in February to assess if feeding is necessary).
If your hives are not there yet, you might want to consider some emergency feeding:
while the temps are above 60F, you might consider some 2:1 sugar syrup feeding inside the hive (in-hive, tray or frame feeders, never entrance feeders or open/community feeding), but quit if temperatures drop
If temps drop below 50F, it is best to not crack those lids much, but in case of emergency you may slide in a no-cook sugar block without anything but sugar and some acids in it (the heated stuff is not good for the bees, as heating sugar above 120F especially with acids creates a substance very toxic to bees, HMFs). Look below for a quick, easy and cheap recipe!
It is not recommended to feed pollen to your bees in Central Texas (we always have plenty), especially in the Winter, as it may cause the loss of a colony or premature swarming due to early brooding comes Spring.
Consider a temporary entrance reduction to reduce robbing events from hungry bees (Italians are notorious for that), but watch that it does not block good ventilation:
For Top-Bar Hives, close down most entrances completely (cork, grass, disc entrance, etc.) but make sure to leave one hole open.
For Langstroth Hives, you may buy special entrance reducers from a beekeeping supply store, or just use pieces of wood.
In nature, colonies nested in tree cavities are well protected from the elements by a thick layer of insulating wood and their ceiling is domed, preventing condensation from forming above the brood's nest and allowing it when it happens to slide down the sides of the cavity.
With the decrease in egg-laying, the brood nest reduces in size, which allows for more storage of pollen and nectar above and on each side of it: when all goes well, that provides enough food and internal insulation for the colony over Winter.
But with hives made of 1/2" or 3/4" wood (like Langstroth hives) that provides almost no insulation to the cluster, the cluster may expand more energy to keep at temperature than in a better insulated hive. Hives made of 2" lumber (like certain Top-Bar Hives) are better insulated than others and typically have no issues in the Winter, but for the others, here are some tips to prevent the dreaded condensation drip that can quickly lead to icy, frozen bees and kill a colony (it happens when warm air from the brood's nest rises and hits a cold ceiling):