Keeping bees is a great addition to any homestead. From two hives you can easily get enough honey for your family and probably some for friends as well. Fresh honey makes a great gift! I’m going to tell you about our experience with bees so far and what we are planning for this winter.
We purchased our first hives three springs ago. It is recommended that you start with two hives because there is a good chance you will lose at least one of the hives to various things. The bees might swarm and leave the hive. They might experience colony collapse disorder, which can be caused by the use of pesticides. In the winter, they may not have enough honey stored up to survive. We have experienced all of those things and, unfortunately, lost both hives the past two years. This spring we purchased Italian bees, which are supposedly less likely to swarm and are generally a little nicer than the Russians we had before. I am happy to report that both hives are looking great and we have high hopes that come next spring we will still have two hives. In order to hopefully aid the bees, we will be doing some extra stuff this fall and winter.
The first year you are not supposed to take any honey to ensure they have enough to make it through the winter. Sometimes, though, that is still not enough. Bees start eating their honey from the bottom of the hive up, so one way to know if they are running out of food is if they are high up in the hive. Bees consume their honey and use that energy boost to “shiver”. With thousands of bees in the hive doing this, it can actually raise the temperature in the middle of the hive higher than 90 degrees! If they do not have enough food, they can’t stay warm enough and will freeze to death.
So, one thing we are going to do this fall and winter is supplement with some sugar syrup and fondant. This will hopefully provide them with enough food to make it through the harshest of winters. There are many recipes for these on the internet. Sometime this month we will do a sugar syrup that is a 2:1 ratio of sugar to water. This will help prep them for the winter. You want to use hot water, not boiling, and dissolve the sugar in it. It is best to use white cane sugar because it doesn’t contain impurities that might harm the bees. Another thing to keep in mind, is that this syrup should be replaced about once per week. You do not want it to get moldy and then have the bees eating it. Replacing it weekly ensures they get an optimum mixture that is nice and fresh.
For the winter, you can do a 3:1 ratio of sugar to water. This will leave less water to evaporate or freeze. For this one, you will want to bring the water to a boil. You can also do a fondant, which is also known as bee candy. This is a harder substance that the bees can feed on over the winter. Here are a couple recipes for the fondant:
Beekeeping Fondant Recipe #1, Circa 1921
12 lbs. sugar
1.5 lbs. corn syrup (non flavored, no vanilla)
1.25 quarts water
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
Heat mixture to 238 degrees. Add tarter at 230 degrees, mix and boil to 238, cool to 200, whip/stir with spoon or beater till white in color. Note: Whip/stirring is not required, but makes a less dense fondant.
Bee Fondant Recipe #2
10 lbs sugar
2 pints water
1/2 tsp cream of tartar
pinch of salt
Follow previous instructions above, add salt to water before boiling
Keeping the correct temperatures is key in these recipes. Varying the temps will vary the outcome by changing how hard the fondant is in the end.
If you are thinking about getting bees, there are some other things you can do to help them survive. Having early bloomers in the spring can help the bees bounce back quicker from the cold season. Flowering trees are perfect for this since they bloom so early. Avoid using pesticides because the bees will end up taking this back to their hives. This can cause colony collapse. Also, having some late fall bloomers is a good idea because the bees will be able to stock up before the winter.
Now, do not let the fondant recipe scare you off. Some people do not do any supplementing over the winter and their bees do just fine. Since we lost our hives the last two years, we are pulling out all the stops this winter to try and save them. I think if we can make it through this first winter, we will have a greater chance of our hives thriving in the future. Bees are wonderful to have around and I cannot wait to try our first spoonful of yummy goodness produced right on our little homestead!