February through to April can be one of the most critical times for honeybees. It's wonderful if your bees have survived the cold weather up until now but it's at the beginning of the year that they might run out of food - especially if the colony was weak in the first place. This being my first winter having bees I want to do my best to keep my two hives going and that means having a peek and topping up their food supply if they need it. Even if you leave enough honey for them at the end of the summer or you think you've fed them enough syrup in the autumn you still need to check to see how they're doing this time of year or risk losing them all.
The last time I checked my bees was well before Christmas. The green hive was doing great and still had an impressive supply of honey to draw from. The white hive, on the other hand, wasn't doing so well so I gave them 2.5 kilos (about six pounds) of fondant which they immediately started eating. Since then we've had snow, rain, incredible winds, and frost, all of which can stress the bees out and create greater chances of the colony dying off before spring.
Some people familiar with beekeeping might wonder why I don't give them sugar syrup, which is a much more commonly known bee feed. It's true that if your bees need food in the Summer/Autumn you generally give them sugar-water which they convert into honey. After truly cold weather sets in you don't want to give them any more though since it takes too much energy for the bees to convert it into food and you risk it either fermenting or even freezing in the hive. On the other hand, bees can eat fondant immediately and it won't freeze in the same way as a watery-food could.
I decided to do a hive inspection on Friday since the sun was out and the winds had died down a bit. Though the bees had enough food the last time I'd visited I wanted to make sure that I had some on hand should they be running low. The 2.5 kilos I'd purchased in December came from Ebay but my beekeeper friend Mr. E rang me up recently and gave me the contact number of a local supplier of Fondant for the island's bakeries. £18 got me 12.5 kilos of the sweet sticky paste and the supplier was even able to drop it off for me at a near-by bakery for easier pick-up. Armed with a carrier bag of the stuff and my beekeeping gear I headed up to see how my bees had fared.
I always have a moment of trepidation when I open a hive and a moment of joy when I see them doing okay. As a relative newbie I'm never quite sure what to expect and in this case I didn't know how quickly a colony could get through Fondant. On opening the white hive I was relieved to see them doing okay but surprised that there was still more than half of what I'd left last time - I expected them to be nearly out by now. It was sad to see that there were a few dead bees in the sticky goo but I was able to free one of them from certain death while I was there. Instead of adding more food I took the smaller bag of fondant out and then turned the other containers upside down. I figure that there might be less chance of the bees getting stuck if they're feeding on it from below. All this work took little more than a minute and I closed up the hive and moved onto the next.
The green hive was fortunately still doing great and had loads of honey in the frames of first super. There are also a lot more bees in that colony but that's been the case since it was formed last summer. I took even less time with this hive and was in and out in half the time. After closing it up I also did a thorough inspection of the exteriors and was satisfied to see that both hives were sound and had withstood the high winds that are even now hitting the sides of the house. I chose a protected place for my bees and they have thick barriers of Gorse and blackberries along the sides along with an old stone wall that's hidden from view in the bramble. The only damage they suffered was one landing board being blown off (due to it being glued on rather than nailed) and some rodent damage on the wax insert for the Varroa floor. It made me think of what could have happened if I hadn't have placed the steel mouse-guards on the hive entrances. It's a sobering thought...
All in all the bees are doing fine though I'm planning on visiting them again in three weeks' time. By then I imagine that they'll need a bit of food but that they might already be out gathering pollen from the first flowers of the year. Crocus, Snowdrops, and Hazel will all be producing bright yellow and orange pollen and the bees will be making some of their first trips out of the hive in months. I'm sure they're just as ready for spring to finally arrive as the rest of us!