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Wednesday, October 26, 2016

How Much Honey Should I Leave for Winter?

In the fall, every new beek wants to know how much honey they should have in their hives. The answer isn't as cut-and-dried as most people would like since it's a regional thing. The amount of honey a colony needs in New England is probably very different from the amount needed in Florida. I have sneaking feeling that it may also vary depending on what kind of hive you're running. For example, local commercial beeks tell me that they leave anywhere from 75-100 lbs of honey on for winter, but I've never seen my bees consume more than 40 lbs max.

Anyway, most of the info I've read says that an average-strength colony will consume about 30 lbs of honey during the winter. However, I don't know if that fact takes into account regional differences, so Phil Chandler's advice seems more helpful to me. He says to allow 2 lbs of honey per week of non-foraging weather for a strong colony. BTW, I have no idea how to define "average" or "strong" colony," but more on that toward the end of this post. 



OK, let's go back to the problem of calculating how much honey to leave. Say that your non-foraging weather stretches from mid-October to mid-March like mine. 
5 months x 4 weeks = 20 weeks 
20 weeks x 2 lbs = a minimum of 40 lbs

If you hadn't noticed, I really emphasized the word "minimum" because you should always have some reserves in case things go pear-shaped. What if winter starts earlier than expected? What if a late frost kills the spring blooms? The bees should have some backup stores for emergencies.

Additionally, Lazutin maintains that a colony will build up better in spring if it has at least 20 lbs of reserves. To quote:
"An average-strength colony that is left to its own devices will consume up to 30 pounds (15 kg) and more of honey during the winter...practicing beekeepers have seen that if a colony is left with "just enough" honey in the fall -- just enough, that is, to last until the first honeyflow next spring -- then when spring does arrive the colony will struggle to grow and will be unlikely to build up sufficient strength in time for the main honeyflow. In the spring, the queen will only lay eggs effectively if the hive contains reserves of at least 20 pounds (10 kg) of honey and the bees are certain that the "kids" won't lack for warmth or food. That's why conscientious beekeepers are in the habit of leaving at least 50 lbs (25 kg) of honey in the hive in the fall, and those who are especially caring keep another 20 pounds (10 kg) for each colony around as an emergency reserve to be used for supplemental feeding if necessary.
As I mentioned earlier, one of my issues has been trying to define what an "average-strength" and "strong" colony looks like. In his book Beekeeping with a Smile, Lazutin provides the following descriptions for evaluating hive strength. Bear in mind, that one of his extra-deep frames equals 2 deep Lang frames:
  • Strong colony: Winter cluster occupies 8-11 extra-deep frames, 5-6 lbs (2.5-3 kg) of bees
  • Average colony: Winter cluster occupies 6-7 extra-deep frames (He doesn't provide weight for this, but it should be an average of strong/weak.)
  • Weak colony: Winter cluster occupies 4-5 extra-deep frames, 2-3 lbs (1-1.2 kg) of bees
If I were to try and compare this to a TBH, this description just wouldn't work for me. By his definition, a winter cluster in a strong colony would have to occupy about 20 bars in my hive. Ummm...yeah, no. If they'd ever gotten that big, they'd have swarmed. So I'm thinking that maybe there are different definitions for what a strong/average/weak colony looks like depending on the kind of hive that you have. This is why I also have that sneaking feeling that the kind of hive you run may also determine how much honey you need to overwinter.

For myself, I try to leave about 15 bars of stores. After weighing various combs, I know that one of my brood combs backfilled with honey weighs an average of 4 lbs. A full honeycomb weighs somewhere between 4.5-5.5 lbs.* Therefore, I can conservatively estimate that I've been leaving about 60 lbs of honey for winter, which puts me on track with Lazutin's recommendations. So far, my bees have never eaten anywhere close to that amount -- not even this past spring when we had such miserable weather, but I'd rather be safe than sorry.

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*If you weighed combs from your own hives, you might end up with different weights than me based on the dimensions of your hive.

6 comments:

  1. Thanks for all the math, Julie, I've never looked at it that way. (and me a math major) ;-) I've always gone by the number of bars and not on how much weight there is. Les Crowder suggests leaving 12 bars and since I live a bit north from him, I always leave somewhere between 14-16 total bars. One thing I've always been confused/concerned about is what is meant by "bars". Is that bars of honey or total bars?

    In a TBH, not only is the amount of honey important, but also where it is located. There needs to be a good band of honey on the top of each brood comb, in addition to full combs on each side of the brood area. You can have all the honey in the world, but if there's none in the brood chamber, the colony will starve in a cold winter. They just won't break cluster to go find all those wonderful combs you've saved for them. Of my 14-16, only about 1/2 are full honey bars. The rest are a mixture of honey, pollen and brood. And I typically have 2-3 combs full of honey left over in the spring.


    I also like the colony strength descriptions and your analysis for TBH. I think a small (weak?) colony can do better in a TBH than one in a Lang. I've had colonies shrink to the size of a grapefruit and still make it through the winter. If I had a cluster that spanned 3-4 frames in the winter, that would be a gangbuster hive for me!

    Thanks for your continued education of the masses!

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    1. Were you a math major? That's cool! My oldest son wants to major in math, too, and his dad and I are strongly encouraging that choice.

      Thank you for sharing your concern regarding "what is meant by bars. Is that bars of honey or total bars?" because it makes me feel less like a dummy! I've asked myself the same question many times, and still don't know the answer either. Reading Crowder's and Hemenway's books, it sounds like total bars to me, but you're right about it being confusing.

      One thing I've been thinking about a lot is Lazutin's advice to harvest honey in the fall 3 weeks after the last brood has emerged. He says this gives the bees time to rearrange their stores. My personal experience is that as long as the weather holds out, I've noticed that going into late Oct/Nov, the bees will take the nectar that is usually way at the back of the hive. I don't know what they do with it because I don't dare open the brood nest, but I've assumed they were backfilling the vacated cells.

      My clusters don't usually span more than 3-4 bars either in the winter. Listening to other lang beeks, I've sometimes wondered if mine were underperformers. Delighted to hear that they're pretty normal!

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    2. Math and meteorology double major == major nerd. ;-) My math professor wanted me to become an actuary because you can make really good money, but I couldn't see myself doing that much math. But there are plenty of other great careers in math and you can apply it in so many fields. That was always the subject that weeded out those wanting to go into meteorology - they don't realize how much math is needed. A good background in statistics helps also.

      If you look at Les Crowder's book (figure 4-9) he really only has 3 full combs of honey in the first 12 bars. The rest is the honey above the brood. I can see the merit in Lazutin's advice - by early October, the bees should have everything arranged for winter. That's why I avoid going in after that and messing with their handy work. Although, given our endless summer this year, I'm curious to see whether they have eaten into their honey stores and whether there is a lot of empty comb that needs to be removed from the brood area. I might take a peek in one of the hives today if the sun comes out.

      It's great to know that we have very similar patterns in our hives - hopefully we're the norm of TBH beekeeping, not the the outliers. ;-)

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  2. Great post, thanks. I'm still not quite sure how much I need, though I'm pretty sure most of my hives are short this year. We've been fortunately to have some warm days in Virginia (and no snow!) to let me try and fatten them up.

    The type of bees is also a factor. Italian bees are more active during the winter and will raise more brood, so will consume more honey. Russian and Carniolan bees raise less brood and consume less honey over the winter. A local Russian queen breeder tells me that Russians bees will eat any eggs when the temperatures consistently dip below 50 F, which allows them to keep the hive a cool 70 to 80 F going into winter and conserve stores. Given my light stores, I sure hope that is true!

    I think total bars is the right measure. We should just declare this to be the case and start a national standard. As you say, the size of the bars has a big impact on how much honey each bar can hold.

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    1. Great point -- so glad you brought up how different bee "races" have different wintering needs. I'd forgotten to account for that. My bees are mostly Carniolan/Russian mutts, so they're supposed to be pretty thrifty. They don't seem to have any brood going into winter at all. Actually, they don't even seem to start raising brood until the swamp cabbage pollen starts coming in around late Feb/early Mar.

      It would be interesting to know what the average difference is in winter consumption of honey (measured in lbs/kg) between Italian bees and Russian/Carniolans.

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    2. Yes, the consumption difference would be interesting. Someone has probably done a study somewhere, I'll have to look for one sometime.

      Have you seen the BroodMinder products? They have a weight sensor and gather statistics online (see http://app.beekeeping.io/help/overview). If they start adding the race of the queen and other data you could probably see some interesting statistics over time. The weight is brand new this year, and I don't have one yet (I have two of the temperature/humidity sensors).

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Thank you for your comment! I can't wait to hear what you think!