My daughter has helped looking after the bees since she was 6 or 7 and now when it's late October we finish preparing the bees for the winter ahead (and all the natural signs indicate it's going to be a cold one). She used to describe the process as "putting the bees to bed"...
The Beekeepers daughter...
The bees are bringing in pollen from the last of the flowering ivy and that's the final major food source they will be able to access until next spring so they are now completely dependant on the stored nectar (honey) and pollen collected over the spring and summer for food until next crop of spring flowers emerge in four months time.
Having harvested the little honey we could (worst honey harvest in 10 years!) and treating the bees for mites, we are now making sure that all the Bee Good colonies have enough stores to see them through a long cold winter. All our hives are highly insulated polystyrene that help the bees stay tucked up safe and warm inside.
A "flipped" bee hive in winter
They will keep the centre of the colony at a toasty 25C even in sub-zero temperatures by gently vibrating their wing muscles and consuming stored honey to give them the energy they need. Keeping bees in our highly insulated polystyrene hives is a thermally closer imitation of their preferred environment of a nest inside a hollow tree and reduces their food consumption dramatically over much colder wooden hives hopefully ensuring their survival.
We try and ensure that each hive has a full super of stored honey for the winter in addition to whatever stores they have already placed in the bigger brood chamber. We previously merged smaller colonies or moved them into smaller hive boxes (nuc's). Those colonies that were a bit light on stores we fed sugar syrup and now we are pretty confident that we have done all we can.
Over the past week or two we've "flipped" the hives to place the full super of food under the brood chamber to encourage the bees to keep storing inbound honey at the top of the hive and our final preparation is to provide each colony with a thin patty of sugar candy as a source of emergency food they can easily access if required.
Each patty is made by splitting a large 2.5Kg pack of candy into four parts with each being placed inside a sealable sandwich bag. The bags are thin enough to fill the 6mm space between the top of the frames and the roof of the hive.
Four thin patties of sugar candy ready to go on the hives
Having prepared the bags, we then check each hive in turn by carefully lifting the roof and looking how much candy has been eaten by the bees by looking through the clear plastic hive cover. In the example below, the bees have eaten most of the candy and are clearly hungry.
Opening up this hungry hive shows that these bees have eaten most of their candy
For those hives that need a top-up we simply use a sharp knife to cut a whole side of the bag away and having lifted up the hive cover we quickly remove the empty bag and replace it with a full one with the exposed sugar facing down onto the hive before rapidly replacing the roof to minimise any potential heat loss from the hive.
Most colonies should have enough stores inside the hive to leave the sugar candy alone, but for those that need it, we will replace these packs every 10 days or so through the winter to ensure that the colonies get enough food to survive through until the spring.