So your bees made it through last winter and, way back in early spring, you checked for disease and stores to make sure your bees could grow to give you, and your bees, honey for the (s)table. But how do bees in the wild fare and how can they be sure (without the benefit of managed hives supplementing their numbers with escaped swarms) they can maintain hive numbers in hollows and logs well away from interfering beekeepers?
This question arose out of an article by an article by Rusty that appeared in the March 2022 HoneyBee Suite. Former club president Dermot Asis Sha’Non brought my attention to this article many moons ago. The article refers to the lengths a colony will go to to survive when faced with a poorly raised queen.
But this exhortation made me think there was rather more to honey bee survival than the unavailability of good queens this season or to the troublesome past spring. Bee numbers only slowly built and would have starved had I not fed them.
But the bee season starts in autumn, not spring. The condition bees go into winter – the quality of the queen (Figure 1) and amount of stores – will, in large measure, largely determine how quickly bees come away as the days again lengthen in spring.
[See Doolittle, G.M. (1889). Scientific queen-rearing as practically applied being a method by which the best of queen-bees are reared in perfect accord with nature’s ways: for the amateur and veteran in bee-keeping 184pp, Chapter VII The new way of rearing queens, p.50. Chicago, Ills. Thomas G. Newman & Son, 923 & 925 West Madison Street. https://archive.org/details/bp_6250849]
Ever wondered why there is an annual call to feed bees in early autumn, well before the bleak season sets in and to admonish beekeepers who ask, innocently enough, how to feed bees in winter. My standard response is to say that you don’t. Feed bees in winter that is.
Alexanderi provides detailed instructions on how and when and what to feed and for two purposes only:
One is frequent very light feeding of thin sugar syrup in spring to stimulate breeding whenever inclement weather sets in or conditions are dry to maintain the queen in a continuous laying condition.
The other is heavy feeding of colonies with 2:1 sugar syrup in the fall (autumn) to ensure adequate stores over winter.
Bees need fuel and planning to leave them short going into winter is poor beekeeping practice. Unless you are a natural beekeeper and believe that feeding them sugar and, if needed, a pollen supplement, is an evil pursuit, the solution is pretty simple.
Take the off last of any honey by March. Then make sure you feed them bulk heavy sugar syrup (as much as 20 L) promptly while there are still bees aplenty and the weather remains warm enough for them to easily process this ‘nectar of the gods’ into nutritious, but hardly saleable, honey. Add a food colourant if you must, that is if you are worried that your honey is genuine and saleable. Bees chomp around 120 kg of honey every year just for maintenance, so feeding them a supplementary diet in autumn is really a pretty safe bet provided you stop feeding them once stores are being built.
If all else fails of course you can feed your bees in winter but that is last resort beekeeping. Dry sugar or a candy made up by mixing up a kilogram fine white sugar, ideally supplemented with a few tablespoons of irradiated pollen, with a minimum of water and popped under the hive lid will help rescue starving bees.
The practical alternative is to leave bees a full box of natural stores to overwinter. I have always taken a beekeeping holiday from the early days in autumn – if there is no late flow – till the first day of spring, perhaps a little earlier with global warming. I then leave my bees strictly alone. This way bees won’t get stressed and there is less likelihood there will be chalkbrood and a European Foulbrood outbreak.
Bees surviving Varroa may change this equation but let’s await that outcome. Keeping bees going will get a whole lot harder if the mite becomes established.
For now those still anxious to ensure the well being of their bees in mid-winter, you can do a heft test – tilt the hive forward from behind the hive – to get an idea of how heavy the hive is (honey pans out at 1.38-1.45 kg per litre ≈ 25 kg for an 8-frame box). Let me know if you think lifting a 20 kg bag of chook food is just chicken feed and that you can’t tell whether there are stores without opening a hive.
Bees use about 500 g of honey a week to keep warm in a standard poorly insulated wooden or plastic hive, far less in a polystyrene setup. It is only when bees commence breeding in late winter around mid August and coming into early spring that stores are quickly depleted.
By late winter or early spring the equation changes. At a maximum laying rate of around 1800 eggs per day, a queen will take three days to lay out both sides of a full depth comb and her brood will then only emerge 21-24 days later (eggs hatch at day 3). The arithmetic is simple: bees may consume two frames of honey a week once brood rearing gets going in earnest. Expect a healthy colony of bees, starting out with a full super of honey, to run dry by mid to late September or harvest so much nectar that the hive gets crowded and swarms.
A frame of brood will emerge, consume a whole frame of honey and cover three combs. Raising bees is expensive energetically and bees can consume most of their stores extremely quickly.
Alexander’s spring experiment
In one trial, half of Alexander’s apiary of 500 colonies were fed $100 worth of sugar, (the other half, also with stores, was not fed) made up as thin syrup. Since sugar was retailing at 4 cents per lb (8.8 cents per kilogram) in the period 1900-1915ii, this would have rounded out at about 1150 kg of white sugar. From Alexander’s notes we read:
With the feeder that is here shown (Figure 2) which I will describe, it requires only one hour or less to feed 200 colonies; and in doing so you need not kill one bee nor waste a drop of syrup nor lose any heat from the colony you are feeding.
Figure 2 The Alexander feeder placed under hives
Note: These units were fitted with a slotted cover overlaying the feeder to allow bees access to sugar syrup.
Source: Alexander’s writings on practical bee culture https://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/item/115381#page/7/mode/1up
This netted him an additional 1350 kilograms (an additional 5.5 kg of honey per hive), and put – after subtracting costs – $290 dollars in his till. This was a lot of money around 1900. The calculations are based on his selling price of honey of 6.5 cents per pound (14 cents per kilogram).
Today good honey retails at around $14 per kilogram, a hundred fold price increase. Since you can buy sugar at Aldi for a little over a dollar a kilogram, you don’t need to be a genius to work out that even heavy feeding during times of dearth will eventually be profitable.
Feeding adapted to hive conditions
The past two seasons have been diametric opposites. Spring 2021 was a land of milk and honey: everyone’s bees swarmed, there were stores aplenty and a giant flow followed. No need to feed! This past (2022) spring was cold and wet, bees either starving if one wasn’t watchful or running on nearly empty. The buildup was slow due to poor nutrition and swarming was very late.
So if bees are short the trick is to feed them in early autumn at the latest and then to feed judiciously, but only as needed, in early spring. This will get your bees over the uptick growth phase that this past year extended into late October requiring something like an autumn feeding regime. However once the weather truely warms up don’t feed bees unless the colony is quite weak colony and needs stores to build. Bees need to get their own dinner.
The best lessons I’ve learnt about beekeeping have arisen out my neglecting hives, failing to ensure adequate nutrition and poor attention to queen replacement. This is no more clearly articulated than in Ron Miksha’s famous book Bad Beekeeping where he encountered a Jim Powers who ran a burgeoning enterprise, a mere 30,000 bee hivesiii:
It’s simple’, said Jim Powers. ‘Good queens. Good location. Surplus feed – honey and pollen – in the hives. Take care of that and you can produce lots of honey.’
Or in Ron’s terminology:
…genetics, environment, management.
Wild about bees
Bees usually thrive in the wild but for less obvious reasons. They do not produce surplus honey for the benefit of mice, bears and humans or indeed for wax moth and hive beetles. And they were never initially responsible for spreading the likes of bacterial, fungal, microsporidian diseases or indeed the menagerie of parasitic mites. Those were vectored around the globe by trucks, boats and aeroplanes carrying infected bees and by beekeeping gear. Wild bee populations, like mobs of kangaroos, dwindle in drought and severe winter years, but recover their number in bountiful times.
Here are three scratchings that illustrate how bees survive of their own accord and how the changing world is having an impact on other species of honey bee.
I Wild honey bee colony survival
Tom Seeley’s extraordinary study of honey bee survival in the wild is instructive. While we mistakenly see honey bee and stingless bee colonies as potentially immortal (only the workers, drones and queens are replaced) Tom Seeley has put this notion to bed and my pal Peter Abbott lost stingless bees to starvation last winter. Unmanaged Apis mellifera colonies — the classic 40 L hollow goldilocks not to big, not too small type — trade off survival and frequent swarming to maintain wild population colony numbers. As long as colony losses are readily made up for by recruited swarms, their collective survival is never in doubt. Homeostasis, at the population level, is only ever limited by the number of hollows available and the amount of forage.
In a study of the Arnot forest wild population, Tom found that wild colonies periodically succumb to starvation, disease or requeening failure. Lifespan for established wild colonies averagesiv about six years but is much lower (~ 2 years) for founding swarms. Swarms suffer high first winter mortality as the bees must expend much energy building comb as well as stores.. Also of note is that Tom found that Varroa (that led to temporary collapse of wild populations) was not a factor — the bees simply adapted.
II Intercast queens
In an also enlightening 4 March 2022 Bees are What They Eat presentation to the Somerset Beekeepers Association, Dr Paul Hurd from Queen Mary University, London explained the epigenetic process of switching on and off genes that results in female bees with identical genetic makeup becoming either entirely different workers or queens. Indeed also amongst sub-castes of workers where they lose faculties such as the capacity to nurture bee larvae.
He illustrated this in the role of the environment in determining different trajectories of identical human twins: one may develop a radical difference in susceptibility to late onset diabetes and to heart disease. The twins’ outcome depends on nurture as much as to genetic makeup.
The intercast queen (common enough amongst colonies forced into emergency queen replacement) arises — as the article by Rustyv in HoneybeeSuite reminds us — from bees not having the luxury of selecting the youngest larvae or the optimum diet. That trajectory departs from the near perfect queen replacement condition that normally characterises supersedure and swarm queen turnover.
I think the article Dermot has turned up illustrates again the remarkable length honey bees will go to to ensure their survival. That an intercast queen, or a queen poorly mated queen, might then be superseded and give rise to a normal healthy colony headed by a fully functional ‘next gen’ queen is a tribute to the selfish gene. There is a strong parallel in hopelessly queenless colonies maintaining a drone population to sire queens in normal colonies despite the colony being incapable of survival itself. Here is a verbatim extract of that article by Rusty:
If you follow the conventional wisdom, you will pinch that intercaste queen immediately and replace her with a ‘real queen’. A quick internet search for intercaste queen yields descriptions like ‘a useless, mutated bee’, ‘a reject’, ‘no good at all’, and ‘they have no purpose’.
Nothing could be further from the truth unless your bottom line is everything. I concede that allowing an intercaste queen to reign can slow your colony development and ding your honey production. Hence, the derisive name-calling.
But if learning about honey bees is your goal, and you get the opportunity to watch an intercaste in action, I say go for it. When I took the time to watch a tiny intercaste change her colony from nearly dead to a roiling mass of pollinators, I was gobsmacked. I had witnessed a stunning act of perseverance.
Rusty goes on:
What is an intercaste queen?
In normal queen development, the workers choose a few newly hatched larvae and feed them a diet of royal jelly. This exquisite diet of nothing-but-the-best allows the selected larvae to develop into fully functioning queens ready to mate.
But sometimes things go drastically wrong. Some of the chosen larvae may not develop properly. Some may contract diseases or parasites, and some may be killed by competing queens. Others may die during their mating flight, and some may get lost and not find their way home. Any number of tragedies can befall a queen before she begins the vital business of laying fertilized eggs.
If everything goes wrong, the colony may find itself in dire straits. The brood nest may still have some larvae but the young ones are all gone, so there is no possibility of feeding royal jelly to a newly hatched larvae. So what’s a colony to do?
What happens is this: The colony picks the youngest larvae they can find and begin feeding royal jelly. These larvae are often about four days old, which is ancient for building queens. Nevertheless, in a last-ditch effort to save the colony, the workers try.
If the colony is lucky, some of these will grow into intercaste queens. They are called intercastes because each one is part worker and part queen. The late start meant there was simply not enough time to raise a regular queen. Intercaste queens are usually smaller than regular queens and have less-pointy abdomens. Although they can attract drones and mate, their pheromones are probably less potent than those of a normal queen.
III Feral bee impact on fauna and fauna and survival of other honey bees
Perhaps the type of impact that exotic bees in general – such as the Asian Honey Bee (Apis cerana) – may have on competing native fauna in the Cairns area in Queensland is reflected in a recent study of the impacts that wild honey bee colonies are having on nesting sites in woodland habitat in southeastern New South Walesvi. A contravening article by Robert Owenvii on the limiting spread of Apis cerana javanica, the same exotic bee of the Cairns area, suggests that guessing the future prospects of our honey bees is, at best, difficult to foretell.
Elsewhereviii I have discussed the survival of some of the dozen or so extant (existing) honey bee species found in southern Asia and the South China Sea. This region, the epicentre of their evolution over the Pleistocene (11,800 to 2.6 million years ago), is under threat from habitat destruction (e.g. land clearing and deforestation), and from honey hunters, all a product of human activity during the recent Holocene (11,800 to present) toss in the contemporary Anthropocene.
Long live the King.
iRoot, H.H. (ed) (1910). Alexander’s writings on practical bee culture, third edition, 124pp, p.30. A.I. Root Company, Medina, Ohio. https://archive.org/details/cu31924003065244
The second edition can be found at
Protherue, J. (1921). Fitting the Alexander feeder. American Bee Journal 61(4):144. https://ia802702.us.archive.org/19/items/americanbeejourn6061hami/americanbeejourn6061hami.pdf
iiWinton Ventures (April 2017). A history of sugar prices: The sweet and sour history of sugar prices. https://www.winton.com/longer-view/the-sweet-and-sour-history-of-sugar-prices
iiiMiksha, R. (2004). Bad Beekeeping, 308pp. Trafford Publishing, Victoria, Canada.
ivSeeley, T.D. (2007). Life-history traits of wild honey bee colonies living in forests around Ithaca, NY, USA. Apidologie 48:743–754. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13592-017-0519-1
vBurlew, R. (Rusty) (March 2022). An intercaste queen stars in a class act of survival. HoneyBee Suite. https://www.honeybeesuite.com/an-intercaste-queen-in-a-class-act-of-survival/
viCunningham, S.A., Crane, M.J., Evans, M.J., Hingee, K.L. and Lindenmayer, D.B. (2022). Density of invasive western honey bee (Apis mellifera) colonies in fragmented woodlands indicates potential for large impacts on native species. Scientific Reports 12:3603. doi.org/10.1038/s41598-022-07635-0
viiOwen, R. (2022). Apis cerana genetics. The Australasian Beekeeper 124(6):34-35.
viiiWade, A. (2003). Highways and Byways of Beekeeping [in press]. Northern Bee Books, Scout Bottom Farm, Mytholmroyd, U.K.