As we mentioned last time in our last blog post, our bees are overwintering in southern Florida, where they can fatten up on the nectar and high-protein pollen from the Brazilian pepper tree. Of course, we can't just leave them to fend for themselves. There's still a lot of work to be done if we want productive beehives when the spring comes.
At the end of the Brazilian Pepper flow, we pulled much of the honey they produced and brought the hives down to just one honey super for storage. We have to move as quickly as possible and keep the exposed honeycombs covered at all times. Because the weather is getting colder and nectar-producing plants are becoming scarce, the bees are especially likely to turn to their robbing behaviors at this time of year.
Robbing behavior can quickly get out of control if we're not careful. If robbing escalates into a frenzy, many bees from different hives will be flying around, stealing honey from other hives and our removed supers to bring back to their own hive. Often, they'll be stealing honey even as their own is being stolen.
Feeding the Bees
Weaker hives can have their honey stores completely emptied if this behavior goes unchecked. We moved them south for the Brazilian pepper tree's high-protein pollen, which does a great job of growing strong colonies with good stores. Many hives just don’t have the strength in numbers and stores even after the flow and we need to supplement their nutrition by giving them sugar syrup and protein to keep them going strong through the winter. This makes a significant difference in the strength and productivity of these hives in the spring when they are needed for pollination and honey production.
While we're down checking on the bees and feeding them, we continue to monitor their health and requeen our hives as needed. The winter is a very dangerous time for our hives. Our bees are in close proximity and reduced numbers, and the varroa mite populations can really get out of hand.
We do our best to keep the varroa count low and keep the bees healthy. We also make splits by separating some bees from our stronger hives and supplying them with a new queen to help replenish some of our losses. Since most of the country is too cold for queen mating in the fall, it can get pretty hard to find queens to introduce. Generally, there is a limited number available from breeders in Hawaii, and that's about it.
We always try to go into the winter with younger queens for a couple of reasons. One is that they have better laying patterns, and they will help our hives rebuild quickly as soon as the spring brings new food sources. The other is that hives with older queens are much more likely to swarm.
Swarming is a natural part of the bee's reproduction cycle and is essentially what we're mimicking when we split a hive. Before a hive swarms, the workers will stop feeding the older queen, so she'll have less weight to carry around. She will also stop laying eggs during the lead-up.
The queen and many of her workers will all fly out in search of a new home, leaving some bees behind to raise a new queen and maintain the old hive. Unfortunately, this greatly weakens the hive, and can severely impact the hive’s productivity during the critical honey production months. It is also risky, as the new queen that hatches in the old hive might not even survive her mating flight, or weather may not permit it at all.
As always, we have to stay on our toes. Our bees need to be clean and well-fed if they’re going to survive the winter, but we also have to keep them prepared to pollinate and produce honey in the spring. The relatively slow season comes at a great time though, as it allows us to catch our breath and enjoy the holidays with our family.