Your Honey Bees and an Early Spring

By William Rowe1 & Geoff Williams2
1The Alabama Cooperative Extension System, Fairhope
2Department of Entomology & Plant Pathology, Auburn University, Auburn
So, in case you’ve not been outside for the last 2 months, you’ve noticed that Winter in Alabama was held in the first full week of January. After putting in that week of work, it snuck off the job and Spring had to be called in early by The Management. We are now, in fact, 20 days ahead of last year in temperatures and plant activity (Fig. 1).
us-national-phenologyFigure 1. Map illustrating the timing of spring leaf emergence, as of February 1, 2017, across the continental United States. It highlights that Alabama is approximately 20 days earlier than historic records (1981-2010 annual averages). Map from the US National Phenology Network (www.usanpn.org).
Far warmer than normal temperatures have helped honey bee colonies overwinter better and have likely spurred your colonies to start ramping up to springtime strength. Yay! But, the January freeze killed off most of the winter blooming plants, and perhaps the varroa mite wasn’t knocked down quite as much as in previous years. Oh no!
Spring build-up is important. This is when the queen’s egg-laying goes into overdrive. Soon a fast buildup of new workers ensues. These new bees then act as nurses that assist in the rearing of yet more bees, while the nurse bees of winter past move out to forage on spring flowers. If all goes well the whole cycle keeps repeating and we get loads of honey come June!
In a year like this one, that bad week of winter has knocked out much of our winter forage, such as Yellow Rocket (yellow flowered relatives of radishes) or Shepherd’s Purse (Capsella species). That means the bees have been living on stores for most of January and February. Recently, the maples have bloomed and that’s a boost for our bees (and a pain in our sinuses). Unfortunately, this forage is likely not enough to support high levels of brood production in preparation for spring.
Even if you see active foragers bringing resources to your colonies, we recommend that you consider feeding your bees now, especially if your colonies are light. On a warm afternoon, you can quickly check reserve levels by inspecting peripheral honey frames or by hefting – whereby you lift one side of the colony to judge its weight. You can practice this by using an empty hive filled with a known amount of materials, like large rocks!
Nowadays your colony should contain at least 40 lbs of stored honey. Given our one-off winter and over-early spring, we’re betting your colonies won’t weigh as much as you’d like.
Now that day-time temperatures are regularly hitting the 60s and 70s, the best way to get the necessary carbohydrates to your bees is to give them sugar syrup (1 part white granulated sugar to 1 part water) using a hive feeder (Fig. 2).
topfeederFigure 2. Photograph of a beekeeper filling a hive top feeder with sugar syrup. Because this feeder does not prevent workers from entering the feeding compartment, straw acts as a float to minimize drowning. Photo by G. Williams.
Protein, which is vital to developing workers, can be fed via a pollen supplement (contains some bee-collected pollen) or pollen substitute (does not contain bee-collected pollen) placed right above the broodnest (Fig. 3). Several store-bought varieties exist, whereas countless home recipes prevail – nearly all are soy-based.
pollenpattyFigure 3. Photograph of a commercial pollen substitute placed directly above the broodnest, as well as a beekeeper filling a division board feeder with sugar syrup. Photo by G. Williams.
Feeding sugar syrup and protein now will likely provide you with big benefits later. Insuring your colonies have well-fed and healthy populations now also provides you with opportunities to make increase via splits or nucs in March, April, and May!

Happy Beekeeping!

Further readings
  • Caron, D.M & Connor, L.J. 2013, 2nd Ed. Honey Bee Biology and Beekeeping. Kalamazoo, Michigan, Wicwas Press, 368 pp.
  • Dadant & Sons. 1978, 3rd Ed. The Hive and the Honey Bee. Carthage, Illinois, Dadant & Sons, 740 pp. (or any updated version).
  • Tew, J.E. 2001. Beekeeping Principles. Clarkson, Kentucky, Walter T. Kelley Co., 245 pp.
***Further readings section added 23 February 2017***

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