How much stores do my bees need for winter?

Depending on what strain of bee you have the amount of stores needed by your bees to get through winter will vary. We can apply an average rule that your bees will need somewhere around 18-22kg (40-50lb) to get them through winter, some large colonies headed with prolific queens may use more.

When we harvest the honey off our bees at the end of August we need to ensure we leave enough for our bees. If you run nationals, and you have strong colonies that you have removed all the honey supers from it is very unlikely your bees will have enough space in the brood box to cater for all the stores needed for winter. Remember that your colony will still have quite a bit of brood, especially if they are strong so there will be limited food in the brood box, although the brood nest will be reducing their may not be enough foraging time available for them to fill the hatching brood cells. For this reason it is common practice for those who run nationals to leave their bees a super of honey. The super is usually put under the brood box rather then left on top. The reason for putting it underneath is that when the queen starts to lay, she will most likely lay in the middle and work upwards and therefore when you do your first spring checks you may find that you have brood in your super. If you put the super underneath it is very unlikely that you will have any brood laid in it. When you do your first winter checks you simply rotate the boxes back around and reinstate the queen excluder between them (you will have removed the queen excluder to allow the cluster of bees to move freely around both boxes during the winter months) making of sure that the queen is in the brood box! It is said that a full national super of honey can hold anything between 25 – 40lb of honey. This will of course depend on how your bees have pulled the frames, how full the frames actually are and how many frames you have in your super e.g. are you using dummy boards in your super! But, in any case above if the super appears full and has a good weight to it you will have a substantial amount of honey stores, which in addition to the honey stores they can get into the national brood box, should equate to a good amount they will require for winter.

A British Standard Brood frame full of honey contains around 2.2kg (5lb) of stores. A 14×12 brood frame holds around 3.25kg (7lb). Both Commercial Brood and Langstroth Brood Frames holds around 3kg (6.5lb), the commercial holds just a little more than the langstroth. Using these figures you can assess the amount of stores in your colony and if they are short of stores you can offer you bees some syrup to top them up.

Most beekeepers would offer them a syrup feed, this can be a pre-made bee feed or you can mix your own sugar feed. Syrup can be offered to the bees in various different feeders; rapid feeder – these are placed on the crown board and the bees have access from below by means of hole or slot and a barrier which prevents them from drowning. There are many varieties of rapid feeders, some only take small amounts of feed and others can take large volumes and they are known by different names but all function in the same way – Ashforth, Miller, English, these all take larger volumes of syrup. Contact feeders are plastic buckets with a gauze cover hole in the lid. You need to invert these to create vacuum so you do need a bucket or something to catch the syrup that will come out before the vacuum holds it, the bucket is then positioned, with the gauze directly over the hole of the crownboard. Frame feeders are another type of feeder however you will need to remove at least one frame to make space for the feeder so I would suggest that a frame feeder would not be a good choice if you were trying to get the maximum amount of stores into your bees as the season is drawing to a close, these would perhaps be better used during the season if you find you need to feed during a dearth.

I do know of a few beekeepers who say they only ever offer their bees fondant no matter the time of the year. There is some question as to whether the bees do take fondant down into the brood nest and store it or if they only use it when they need it so do bare this in mind if you are feeding your bees to encourage them to take down stores. We have always only fed fondant over the winter months and syrup at any other times. Certainly if you came across a colony that was on the verge of starvation you would need to offer them syrup. We do cover what to feed bees and when in another post.

How do we check if our bees still have food in the middle of winter?

As we go through winter it is simply not good enough to think your bees will have enough stores, you must check them, if you don’t and they run out of food they will die of starvation. “But we don’t open our hives in the winter so how do we check?” I hear you ask. How we check for stores is by hefting. You heft your hive on three sides and see how heavy it is. We check on three sides because if the food was all stored to one side and we only hefted from the back we would not feel the weight so by checking three sides we will get a better estimate of whether they need extra feed or not.

I always suggest to new beekeepers that they heft their hives during the season after an inspection so they can get a feel for the weight. You will know how many frames you have filled with food, so if you heft it once you have put the roof back on and you will start to get an idea of what weight relates to what food stores they have so when winter comes you will be better prepared.

If you find your hives are feeling light then you can offer them fondant. You cut a hole in the underside of the fondant pack, peel back the wrapper to expose it and place this directly over the hole of the crownboard, your bees only have to come to the underside of the hole to get the feed. The wrapper is see through so to check if they need more all you need to do is remove the hive roof, which can be done quietly and quickly thus not disturbing the bees.

Fondant and Candi on bees February

If you have done all of the above then you can feel assured you have done all you could for you bees. Unfortunately there will always be winter losses and even if your bees do have food stores either in the frames or fondant on the crownboard they may fall victim of starvation. Winter starvation where they have food stores is usually down the bees, when in cluster during very cold periods, moving away from the food and not with it. The diagnosis for death in this case is called isolation starvation and there if nothing you or anyone could have done to foresee this happening or indeed to help.

I’ve spotted a swarm of bees, who do I contact to collect it?

If you are a not a bee keeper and you are reading this, the answer to your question will be to search on the internet for your local beekeeping association. On their website you will find details of who to call for swarm collection in your area.

If you find bees living in the structure of your property this is a very different situation to swarm collection. A hobbyist beekeeper will not be able to help with colony removal like this as they will not have adequate insurance. There are profession companies that can help with the removal of these feral colonies, do check they have adequate public liability insurance. They will ensure the all the comb, honey and all of the bees are removed. This can be very costly so before you begin down this road do consider if the bees really are a nuisance. If you look on the BBKA website you will find links to such companies that can give you advise and provide you with quotes for the removal.

If, however, you are a beekeeper and you are reading this the answer is of course that you should collect the swarm yourself! Your bees are your responsibility and if they swarm you should try to see where the swarm goes and deal with it yourself so that it does not become a nuisance to the public or your neighbours. If you are a new beekeeping and don’t know how to collect swarms speak to your mentor if you have one or seek help and guidance from your local beekeeping association. Once you have seen how to collect swarms you will have confident the next time to do so on your own.

If you are a known beekeeper in your village or town you will probably find that you will be called for every swarm that shows up in your area and they will all believe they are from your bees even if they aren’t! I would say that all beekeepers have the responsibility to do what they can to assist anyone that calls about swarms. If you are unable to collect the swarm yourself then put them in touch with someone who can help them.

Happy Beekeeping!

I’ve spotted a swarm of bees, who do I contact to remove it?

If you see a swarm of bees hanging on a tree, clustered on a shed or wall or even on a parked car then you should be able to find a swarm collector through your local beekeeping association. Once you make contact with they will most likely ask you a few questions in order to gather all the information they need so they have the appropriate equipment to remove the swarm.

  • Where are you – address, postcode, phone number, other location details
  • Where are the bees -easy to get at; height from ground, in tree, bush, in building
  • Description of bees – round and furry (they may be Bumble Bees not Honeybees), do they have a waist, estimate of number etc
  • You may be asked to send a photo of the bees from your phone
  • How long have they been there – just arrived, an hour, several hours, longer
  • What are they doing – fly in a cloud, with a purpose or just milling around, have they settled and are gathered in a ball?
  • Can we have access at dusk or similar?

Some examples of swarms of honey bee below. Click here to find your local swarm collector by postcode

Once you have made contact with the local collector he or she will come out and deal with the swarm. They will most likely shake or brush the bees into a box or nucleus hive. There will still be some bees that are flying around so ideally they will leave the box with an entrance open close to where the cluster to attract any flying bees. Once the sun has gone down all the bees should be in the box and the beekeeper can simply return, close the entrance and remove the bees safely.

It is worth noting that bees don’t always stay in the box that the swarm collector shakes them into. If the swarm has already decided on its new home, or simply does not like the box/nuc hive that the swarm collector has shaken them into, they can go again! They may even move back out to where they originally clustered. The swarm collector could try again but I often find if they go once they go again and they end up being the swarm that got away.

How do I unite two colonies?

There are many reasons why we may need to unite two colonies together. It may be that during the season our colonies numbers have increased due to taking in swarms or doing splits/ artificial swarms for swarm prevention or control and now as we head towards winter we want to reduce our colony numbers. It may be that we have a colony that is healthy but very small and the likelihood of it getting through winter is slim so we want to unite it with a stronger colony. It may be that there is shortage of queens at the end of season and you have a queenless colony. You may have performed an artificial swarm and don’t want to leave the bees to raise a new queen due to poor weather. There will be many other reasons why you may want to unite two colonies.

Uniting is a relatively quick and easy process and the only extra equipment you need is newspaper. I have read may blogs that make the process seem quite complicated; it really isn’t.

If the bees you want to unite are in the same apiary but a good distance apart the first thing you will need to do is to move one of the hives a little bit each day until they are within a few feet of each other so the flying bees find the their new home. If you are uniting 2 colonies from different sites then simply site the colony you have moved in to the new apiary next to the one you are going to unite it with.

If both your colonies have queens it is not necessary to remove one of the queens before uniting unless of course you favour one of the queens over the other. If you leave it for the bees to decide they will usually keep the younger queen. Decide which hive you are going to use for the bottom half of the uniting and remove the roof and crown board. Place a couple of sheets of newspaper so that it completely covers the brood box and pierce a few small small holes in it, do not use a hive tool as this will create too big a hole, some say you don’t even need to make any holes. Now place the brood box of the other colony directly onto of the newspaper, put the crown board and roof on and do not disturb them again for a week. The bees, top and bottom will start to nibble through the newspaper, during which their scents will mix. It will take around 24 hours for the bees to nibble through the newspaper, when you return in a week you may see evidence of the newspaper but the majority will have gone.

If one of your colonies is stronger than the other we suggest you leave this at the bottom and put the smaller colony on the top. If you have a honey super on the bees you can leave this in place and put the newspaper on this rather than the brood box and then put your other brood box on top.

It is said that uniting should be done in the evening but we unite during the day with no problems.

If you feel you are not happy with letting your bees decide which queen they want to head their colony or if you are concerned that your queen may get damaged as she fights it out with the other then you can find and remove one of the queens yourself. Some say it’s more natural to let the bees decide however in the wild colonies would not unite so it cannot be a natural process for them. You must go with what you are more comfortable and happiest doing. Obviously if one of the colonies is displaying traits you don’t like then this is the one you will remove the queen from before you unite them. If you do remove a queen it would be normal practice for the queenless colony to be put on top of the queen right colony and not the other way around.

Always go through both colonies and check all is well before you unite them. If you are removing a queen yourself then I would make that my first job so that the pheromones can start to disperse a little before I lifted the brood box onto the newspaper.

If you are uniting a colony because it has struggled all year make sure you check that it is disease free which may be the cause of it struggling. Do not unite any colonies if they have any health concerns, you may be inadvertently spreading disease through your other colonies.

If you decided on your last inspection that you are going to unite two colonies next time you visit your bees, do make sure you go through both colonies and double check they are both queen right, before you start the uniting, just to make sure nothing has changed since you last inspected them.

Happy beekeeping!

How do I deal with laying workers?

We briefly touched on laying workers in our post “My Colony is Queenless”. Here we will tell you how to be sure that you have laying workers and what, if anything, you can do to fix the colony.

Firstly lets look at what a “Laying Worker” is. Laying workers is exactly that’ it is worker bees that are laying eggs. The presence of brood in a colony inhibits the ovarian development in the female worker bee so our worker bees don’t have ovaries and therefore cannot lay eggs. When a colony becomes queenless and broodless there is a chance that the workers in your colony can be stimulated into developing their ovaries to enable them to lay eggs.

We often get asked how long can I leave my colony for before the workers start laying. There is no answer this question, its like asking how long is a piece of string. Your colony could be queenless for many many weeks and never develop laying workers but then again they may be queenless and broodless for just a week or two and then you may find that some workers have started laying. If you are unfortunate enough to have laying workers the eggs that they lay are of course unfertilised as the worker has not mated. All the eggs laid will therefore be drones (male). The eggs will also be laid haphazardly through out the colony and not laid in a neat pattern like a queen. It worth noting here that early identification of laying workers can be easily missed as we often only look for eggs in the middle frames and usually we start to look in the center of the middle frames.

Laying workers will lay anywhere in the hive so you need to check every part of every frame. They will also lay multiple eggs in the same cell. The worker bees abdomen is shorter than that of the queen so the eggs are often laid along the cell walls or are to one side at the bottom of the cell and not in the center of the cell as a queens egg would be. It is worth noting that a newly mated queen, or a damaged queen, can also lay multiple eggs in a cell. A newly mated queens will soon get over this so whilst you may see a few multiple eggs this should stop if a few days. The best indication as to whether its a queen or laying worker would be the placement of eggs in the cell.

When laying worker drones are capped over, they are often stunted in size. Even when the drones hatch they are considerably smaller than a queen’s drone.  To the untrained eye laying worker drone brood can be difficult to identity and can be confused with a drone laying queen. This is especially true if you have put a new queen into a colony that has been broodless for a while and didn’t notice that some of your workers had started laying. In this situation you will see the queen on the frame so you will assume she is a drone layer. If however you look closely you will see that your queen is being ignored by the workers and she is not looking for cells to lay in. If left the queen will eventually will die as the workers will not attend to her or feed her.

The two photos both show drone brood. The one on the left is a very scattered pattern and if you had the frame in your hands you see some cells have multiple eggs in them; these were laid by a worker bee. The picture on the right is a drone laying queens brood. You will see the lay pattern is better and if you had the frame in your hand you would see single eggs in cells.

So, having identified that you have laying workers what, if anything, can you do?

If your colony has laying workers as advanced as the above photo on the left, this colony has a lot of sealed brood and some drones have started to emerge, then the colony has probably gone too far to be fixed. In this instance you are best to shut the bees up, carry the hive as far away as possible and shake the bees out. If you have other bees in your apiary, that are sited not too far away from where the one with laying workers was, then the flying bees will find those hives.

If you spot the laying worker early enough, you see multiple eggs and maybe a little larvae but no sealed brood, and your colony is of fair strength and has not been queenless for too many weeks, then you may be able to save the colony.

If you do want try to save the colony you will need a mated queen and, if you have another colony, its worth taking a frame of emerging brood from it. If you have, or can get, a mated queen but don’t have a frame of emerging brood and your colony with laying workers has lots of bees then it is possible that you may still save them. How we deal with laying workers is that we carry the colony away as far from its location as far as we can, ideally around 30 yards or more and then we shake all the bees out. We need to ensure every single bee is shaken off every frame and off the brood box walls and floor etc. We do this because we have no idea which worker or workers are laying but we do know she is a house bee rather then a forager. By shaking all the bees out the house bees will not know their way home only the flying bees will. It is for this reason that the colony needs to be reasonably strong as you will lose all your none flying bees. Already flying bees will be returning to the original site so if you have a spare hive it is best to set this up on the original site with one frame in for the flying bees to return to. I always put the new mated queen, in her cage, in the new hive ready as well. By the time you have finished shaking out the bees a good proportion of the flying bees will have made it back to the hive (new hive) with the mated queen in the cage. Return to the original site and populate the hive with your frames, make sure you have some frames of food. Any frames that have multiple eggs, or sealed worker drone, should be thrown away and replaced. If you did have a frame of emerging brood from another colony drop this into the hive as well, positioned in the middle, and remove the tab from the queen cage. The queen will be let out of the cage and if all is well you will have eggs when you check the colony in 10 days.

Dealing with laying workers does not have a great success rate however if this is your only colony, or one of a few, then it is likely you will want to try and save them. Do bear in mind the time of the year, you are not likely to build a colony up strong enough for winter if its end August and you find laying workers.

If the laying workers have gone too far and you do have other colonies that are strong you can always make a nuc up and place this where the laying worker colony was and then shake you bees out at a good distance. If the nuc had been made up from bees on the same site then a good proportion of the bees will be flying bees, these will return to their parent hive, and the bees you shake from the laying worker colony will then boost the nuc.