The day your honey bees start to cluster is the bookend to a busy beekeeping season. It can come with mixed emotions and many beekeepers are a touch bummed when their bees go into a state of semi-dormancy. You can feel helpless in the face of the chilly winter winds, and you may worry about whether your bees will make it through to spring. But you’re not as helpless as you think and following these four cluster maintenance tips will empower you to up your bees’ winter survival rate.
Have you ever heard the saying, “Heat rises”? It’s true, and it’s something to keep in mind with the cluster. In an ideal world, your bees have 60-90 pounds of honey heading into winter, but we all know the world doesn’t always work how we want. Here are some reasons why you may find your bees struggling to feed themselves in winter:
If you need to feed, make sure you place any sugar derivatives above the cluster. Since heat rises, the honey bees will be able to emerge from the cluster into a relatively warm area of the hive, minimizing any adverse effects.
While we are on the subject, let’s talk about why you should avoid feeding syrup in winter.
If you have to give supplemental feeding, make sure you use granulated sugar, sugar fondant, candied sugar, or sugar patties. Feeding syrup in winter can be a recipe for disaster. Here’s why:
Sugar syrup can freeze your bees.
Syrup contains moisture and if any were to drip on your cluster, it could freeze the bees. The day and night temperature fluctuations make this a real possibility.
Sugar syrup can mold.
If your syrup molds, it will be of no use to the bees.
Sugar syrup gets cold.
Think about it. Sugar syrup contains a large quantity of water. It can get really cold. The bees can’t drink ice cold syrup.
Sugar syrup can attract pests.
If you leave your syrup in an easily accessible place in the hive, it can attract all kinds of critters.
Sugar syrup isn’t as concentrated as honey.
Your bees will have to concentrate the solution themselves, which is extra work they don’t need. You want all their energy devoted to keeping the cluster warm.
Even though the cluster reflects a reduction in the normal buzzing and flying activity you during warmer months, there’s actually a lot going on throughout the winter. For example, the cluster expands and contracts depending on the ambient temperature. Additionally, retriever bees will venture outside of the cluster for brief periods of time to get honey.
One of the best ways to excel at cluster maintenance is to check the position of your honey bars before your winterize your hive. In a top bar hive, like the Beepods Beekeeping Complete System, make sure the cluster starts the cold season on one end of the structure.
The cluster will eat its way through the bars of honey over the course of a few months. If the cluster starts in the middle of the hive, it may find itself on the far end of the hive. The closest bar of honey might be too far away to get to before they starve.
If you need to adjust the bars, make sure you do it on a day that’s warmer to minimize the amount of cold air you let into the hive. If you can’t get into the hive, you can always check the temperature from the outside.
For the technologically inclined beekeepers, consider picking up a thermal camera or scanning device. Using this technology, you can do spot checks from the exterior of the hive to see how your honey bees are doing.
Make sure you check both sides of the hive when you do this, especially if you have a top bar hive. Since the cluster can be on either end of the top bar hive, if you scan the vacant end, it will read quite cold. This can make it look like your bees are struggling or dying when really you’ve just scanned the cold side.
If you notice the hot spot suddenly moves upward, it could be a warning sign the colony is struggling to maintain temperature and is actively seeking warmer areas of the hive. Smaller colonies struggle to maintain heat and will not be able to spread out to reach honey. Keep this in mind as well during your cluster maintenance assessments.
We know it can be disappointing and frustrating to lose your colony over winter and we want to make sure that doesn’t happen to you. Remember that honey bees live inside hollowed out tree trunks in the wild, which are much thicker than the thin pine walls of a commercial hive. If you haven’t figured out a system to winterize, and insulate your hive, check out our Beepods System Winterizing Kit. It comes with everything you need to protect your bees. Once you’ve successfully winterized your hive and followed the cluster maintenance techniques above, you’ve given your bees the best chance at survival.