Should I Leave Supers on For the Winter?
Ask the Expert!
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Question: Should I leave supers on for the winter?
Josh Vaisman replies: In areas with long winters, honey bees rely on their stores of honey to survive. In Colorado, where I live, the dearth begins sometime in October as all the nectar-providing flowers wilt and disappear. Sometimes we don’t see new nectar sources appear until March or April when the dandelions begin to bloom. That means, in a challenging year, my bees might go five months or longer without natural resources. Whatever honey they have in the hive is what they have to live off. The general rule of thumb in Colorado is, by the end of October, a hive should weigh around 100 pounds.
To help with this scenario some beekeepers, including myself, leave a honey super on the hive over winter. I collect the “excess” honey crop in mid-August but not down to the deeps. If my bees made four supers of honey, I only take three. So, when you see my hives this time of year, you see two deep boxes AND a medium box. In my experience, this allows my bees to keep a larger cluster going into winter and have more food to live off thus helping their winter survival. The downside is, I’m leaving between 25-35 pounds of honey on the hives every year. With four hives, that’s a lot of honey I could have collected for myself.
Some people leave ALL their honey on the hive over winter. So, if the bees make four supers all of them stay on over winter. I believe this is excessive and unnecessary. Honey left out over winter will likely crystalize making it difficult to extract the following spring. Furthermore, the cluster of bees needs to move throughout the winter to access food supplies and spreading the food out over a large area like that might actually make it challenging for the bees to get to during particularly long stretches of cold. And, in all likelihood, that much extra honey is far beyond their needs.
Question: I was wondering if there was a guideline for ensuring that there would be adequate resources by putting manmade feed for them in the setup and if so, how much. – Richard (Minnesota)
Josh Vaisman replies:
Hey Richard — Thanks for the comments and questions! I think you’re wondering about supplementally feeding your bees over winter in lieu of leaving a honey super on the hive. If that’s the case, yes, it’s absolutely an option! Given you live in Minnesota, though, you are a bit limited in what you can offer your bees for supplemental feed. For example, you do not want to give them liquid feed during the winter due to the risk of freezing. You can use fondant or sugar boards as an option. I’m no expert in either of these since we don’t use them so you could look around online or, better yet, speak to an experienced beekeeper in your area who uses one of these methods. As for amounts, a medium honey super typically has between 25-35 pounds of honey in it so if you’re going to go another route keep that in mind. I’m not suggesting you need to give them 25 pounds of fondant or sugar boards. That would be nearly impossible. What I am suggesting is that you monitor their supplemental feed throughout the winter and use the warmer days to replenish their feed. I hope that helps!