Beekeeping Tips for February

Last year at this time, the weather was unseasonably warm. Bees had more cleansing flights, and maple pollen and sap was coming in much earlier. Bees were brooding up at this point. Last year, the maple sugarers claimed it wasnt a good year for the freeze/thaw temps that are needed. It felt like the winter tips didn't apply. This year is quite the opposite. Have you noticed? We've seen some cleansing flights here and there between the cold snaps, but we're getting a winter that is much more in line with what we would expect. We still want to be taking notice of what's happening in the hives. Stronger colonies are in fact building up now. It's important to ensure there is honey accessible to the cluster so that the bees can more readily move on to it. Perhaps, a candy board would be appropriate? We still have some cold weather to get to... and if bees are building up, that means more food consumption. It's a tricky time of year. Last year at this time, many beekeepers were adding pollen into their hives to help the queen get going. Right now, I'd caution you on this. I myself am holding out.

Here is what is happening inside the hive and what the bees do when they are stuck inside a tight cluster for 1-2 weeks on end?

When the ambient temperature drops to 64F (18C), a healthy hive will start to form a cluster or a ball of bees which cling tightly together.  As the temperature drops, the cluster will keep contracting; not because the number of bees are decreasing but because they are getting closer together to conserve heat. The following table shows an example of the number of frames that a hive of bees may hypothetically cover as the ambient temperature drops.

Outside ambient temperature

Number of frames same hive of bees may cover

 41F     (5C)

8 - 10 frames

 28F  ( -2C)

6 – 8 frames

   7F  (-14C)

4 – 6 frames

-15F (-26C)

2 frames

This contraction explains why the bees can die surrounded by honey during a really cold winter or when over-wintering hives with small populations. The bees simply cannot leave the cluster to get to the food. It also shows that when the temperature fluctuates tremendously like it does in late winter and early spring, it is possible for the bees to spread out as the temperature warms and then accidentally form a tight cluster in the wrong spot, with no nearby food, as it cools.

What a beekeeper should be doing in February:

  • This is the prime time for starvation. Check your food sources and add emergency supplies if it is needed. Ideally, you will do this on a warmer day!
  • Do the bees have pollen? The queen can start laying eggs in February and pollen will be needed as a brood food source. Be careful about feeding pollen too early though. Doing so can cause a variety of problems. Pollen stimulates brood production and cannot only exhaust food supplies prematurely but also cause the queen to lay eggs beyond the cluster... keeping many bees outside the cluster to keep newly laid eggs warm. In cold temps, bees outside the cluster will die. In addition, pollen causes bees to defecate. Late winter weather may not allow for cleansing flights, increasing the likelihood of dysentery which can quickly lead to a nosema infection.
  • Check for dead-outs. If you think the hive is dead, wait for a warmer 40-degree day and peek in the top to make sure. Do autopsies and decide if the hive succumbed to queenlessness, starvation, or disease?
  • Clear bottom entrances of dead bees and other debris.
  • Count your surviving hives and verify that you have enough honey supers. A good rule of thumb is to have at least 2 supers per hive when the dandelion blooms.
  • Is your equipment ready for the year?
  • Do you know where you are getting your bees for spring increases or replacement?
  • How many swarm traps will you need for spring?
  • Keep an eye out for maple tree buds. This will be one of the first pollen sources available. If pollen is actively being brought into the hive, this generally indicates a healthy queen and hive.
  • Wax moth activity dramatically picks up as the temperatures rises. Keep an extra eye out for stored frames. Moth crystals (paradichlorobenzene) can be used for control, as well as freezing the frames, or exposing the frames to light.
  • If you need to medicate for American Foulbrood, European Foulbrood, or Nosema, start creating your plan because most have a 4 week withdrawal period between treatment and the first marketable nectar flow.
  • Spring usually brings some of the wildest and windiest weather. Make sure the lids are secured after you break the seals.
  • Brood production also brings mite production. Determine your method for counting mites, your threshold, and control method.
  • Go to bee school!

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