It has warmed up enough that I’ve been able to make a round of most of the beeyards to try to catch any light colonies and get some feed on them. So far only one has needed supplemental feeding, a strong colony in my northern yard up past Terry Lake, the yard that the yearling bear got into earlier this year.
This beeyard did marginally better than the rest this year. They had a bad winter with low survival, but I moved several of the packages (new starts from California) in and they filled a second story and made their winter stores, some even made a small surplus. If I can get most of them through the winter I may have a chance at a crop next year. This is the yard furthest removed from row crops and I suspect that may be why they have done a little better.
I started the packages up at the Little Thompson yard in April thinking that would be the safest yard, free from exposure to pesticides, but it turned out to be just the opposite. The farmer had a problem with weevils in the alfalfa, the sprayers told him they wouldn’t spray unless the bees were gone, so the whole yard had to be moved on short notice and now the Little Thompson yard is history after more than 30 years.
Along with the overwintered colonies the packages went to the Table Mountain yard and I let them build up there until they were ready for a second story, then moved several of them to Terry Lake as single story colonies and gave them a second story there. It is much easier to move a single story colony. I hope to get most of them through the winter and add a few more new ones next spring. Winter survival has become a key, and if I have high losses again I’ll be bumped into the ranks of the hobbyists.
There isn’t much a beekeeper can do for the bees at this time of year except to see that they have enough stores to keep them from starving out, and even then if they are fighting something they may die anyway even with ample stores. The best way to feed is with honey in the comb that has been saved back, but it has been such a struggle for them there hasn’t been much opportunity to set any honey aside for that purpose, but I do have a little stashed in the Honey House that I will use up.
Next comes sugar syrup, the most common way to feed bees, about one to one sugar to water. This works during the warmer months, but by now, with the days and nights cooling, syrup may cause more problems than it solves. The bees have to evaporate the moisture from the syrup, and this condenses at the top of the hive then drips down on the cluster. If an in-hive feeder is used the bees are at marginal operating temperature because it is cold, they suck up the cold syrup and this drops their body temperature and they fall over in the syrup and drown. This can kill more bees than you save.
Baker’s fondant is used by some beekeepers and I’ve used it myself, but it is rather expensive if you are feeding many colonies and it is sticky and messy to divide up. Straight granulated sugar can be used in a pinch, put between the inner and outer cover, but this isn’t too effective and the bees can only get to it on the warmer days.
One good answer to winter feeding is something called a candy board. A candy board is like the sugar syrup, but the syrup is heated to the soft ball candy stage, which results in a semi-solid. Any variety of forms could be used to contain a thin layer of candy, I use an inner cover. Think of a wooden candy sheet with a rim of about 3/8ths of an inch. I put freezer paper on the inner cover to keep the candy from leaking out, then put in a layer of candy leveled off even with the rim. While the candy is still warm a sheet of waxed paper is put on top and pressed onto the surface.
To feed a colony I would take off the outer telescoping cover and the inner cover, then invert the candy board on top, waxed paper down. I make a slit or two in the waxed paper to give the bees an edge to start on and they will consume the candy from below, chewing away the waxed paper as they go. The waxed paper helps to keep the candy moist and keeps it from falling down between the frames. One candy board will feed a colony for a month or more depending on the strength of the colony. Sometimes in the spring I will include a protein patty in the middle of the candy board. The protein helps to stimulate brood rearing. I call it a Happy Meal. So I need to make up a few candy boards and on the next warm day I’ll make another round and put some on.
There is a sad footnote to the story of Hunch, the little Auracana hen I wrote about last week. The day after Thanksgiving I let the chickens out into the garden in the late afternoon as I’ve been doing for the last couple of weeks if I’m around. I had been doing a little work around the garden, but mostly had been sitting in the last of the sunshine reading a book I’m trying to get through and I went into the house to fill my coffee mug because the chickens had another 15 or 20 minutes to go before it got dark and they went in.
I wasn’t in the house more than two minutes, literally just two minutes, and from the kitchen window I can see the east half of the garden. As I filled my coffee mug I was looking out the kitchen window and saw the chickens making a dash across the garden, not a fun run from the looks of it, so I hot footed it back out to the garden to see what was going on.
Well, it was the fox. He must have been waiting, watching from the bushes, and when I left he moved in on the chickens. It was too late for poor Hunch. The rest of the chickens were OK.
The fox went over the west fence and out into the pasture on my arrival, but I guessed he would be back for his kill and after I had rounded up the rest of the chickens I went back in the house for the 12 gauge. I didn’t plan to shoot the fox, but wanted to do some negative conditioning so I had a couple of cracker shells, 12 gauge shells that shoot an M-80 firecracker. They will explode at about 20-30 yards.
I sat quietly for a few minutes and sure enough, here he came, warily. I wanted him on Hunch when I scared the bejesus out of him, but just as he was about to hop the fence the neighbor boy on the other side saw me sitting in the garden and hollered “Hey Tom, what are you doing?” That did it for the fox. He was gone and didn’t come back so I lost the opportunity to do some training, but I’m keeping the 12 gauge at the back door just in case I get another chance. Poor Hunch.
I’ve learned something from this, and that is that I have a very wily fox to deal with and if I let the chickens out I will have to be right there all the time. Life in the jungle I guess. ❖