This fall found me with a number of small colonies ill-prepared for winter. I had anticipated a deluge of late-season queen requests, requests that, unfortunately for my lovely young queens, never materialized. These little colonies run the gamut with regards to population and stores and are unlikely to survive the long winter months without intervention. Overwintering small populations can be tricky; wiser heads than mine advise “taking your losses in the fall;” combining “dinks” (too-small or less vigorous colonies) to form larger, stronger colonies with improved chances of overwintering. Selecting the better of two queens and discarding the poorer one is standard practice.
My ambivalence in following such wise advice stems from the fact that my new, young colonies are small through no fault of their own. They were contrived by me through aggressive splitting and queen-rearing procedures, and I have a hard time eliminating them as “unproductive” when they really haven’t been placed in conditions that would allow them to grow into self-sufficient colonies. In addition, should I be clever enough to overwinter my nice, young queens, they will be in fine form to head large colonies in the spring, either in my own yard or someone else’s.
The issue of insufficient stores is simpler to address than that of inadequate population. When autumn syrup feeding falls short of fulfilling colony needs, feeding with solid sugar becomes critical. In a true emergency, pouring sugar directly on the inner cover can be a life-saver for the bees. If temperatures permit, they will eat the sugar from the top of the inner cover. The caveat here is, of course, if temperatures permit. In an optimal hive configuration, the bees have immediate access to their honey stores on all sides of the cluster, requiring only a slight rise in temperature to allow them to move to their food. Ideally, the emergency food should likewise be in close contact with the cluster, perhaps in the form of fondant candy placed atop the frames. Making fondant, in my estimation, is an art form, one I have neither the patience nor the time to cultivate. In our county, we are fortunate to have a master fondant-maker whose recipe is available at the LCBA website. For me, I am grateful for the no-cook candy board, a quick and relatively painless means of putting a solid-sugar feed source directly above the winter cluster. (And I haven’t yet figured out how to burn it!)
In her blog “Honey Bee Suite,” Rusty Burlew shares wonderfully complete instructions on how to prepare a candy board that requires no heating or skill with a thermometer. I hadn’t needed to do supplemental feeding since the winter of 2015, when I based my candy boards on Anita Deeley’s instructions from the Beverly Bees blog. In making this year’s candy boards, I chose not to include the pollen supplement Rusty recommends, largely because my colonies tend to ignore protein patties, possibly due to the fact that my locale offers high-quality late- and early-season pollen resources. Protein supplements, preferably those with at least a percentage of real pollen, are very beneficial in supporting brood building in pollen-poor colonies, however, and their inclusion can give a beekeeper tremendous peace of mind. After installing the last of my candy boards, I’ll rest a little easier knowing my light hives won’t be hungry.