Over the summer and early fall, bees store up honey for winter. We use a standard langstroth hive and in our set up we put two large supers (the two big boxes), then a queen separator, followed by the small supers on the top.
Now in the fall we remove the honey from the top, while the bees do a little house cleaning as well. The queen slows down her egg production and the focus switches to honey. They also kick out all the drones... the male bees that is. That's right, during the winter months it's only female bees in the hive. Must be nice.
In our two good hives we actually got a bit of honey to harvest from them. The bottom box had some brood and honey, and the second was full with capped honey -- which is what you want to see in a hive going into the winter. The weak hive that I had to feed in this video was not looking so hot. There was a good amount of honey in the bottom box, but not a bit in the top. We received the hive in July, which is really late in the year and the bees did not have the chance to even fully build out the wax combs in the top box. Our bee friend Marcus procured a few frames of honey for the weak hive, but it still wasn't enough.
When I checked on the hives a couple days ago the two good hives had no bees at the top. I could hear them buzzing lower in the hive, but didn't want to disturb them to see how low they still were. When you open up the hive you are letting out heat, and the bees have to work harder to keep the hive warm. So if you open a hive in winter it is best to work quickly. Anyways, in January this is what you want to see, bees still deep in the hive. But then I opened the weak hive and was greeted by a clump of bees right at the top.
In the winter the bees start at the bottom and will eat their way up, that's why it's a good idea to swap the two boxes in the spring, as the bottom box should be cleaned out and the top will be full of bees. So if you open a hive in January and all the bees are up at the top... that's not good. It means they have already eaten through their food stores and are on their way to starving. So what can you do? Well you have to feed them or they are going to die.
In the warmer months you feed a sugar syrup, but in the winter the mixture would just freeze and the bees have no way of getting rid of the extra liquid when they are cooped up in their hive. Instead, during the coldest months, it's best to feed either sugar cake, candy, or fondant... now candy and fondant are a bit too involved to make as I just don't have the space in my kitchen for such a process so I went with sugar cakes. You mix 12 parts sugar to 1 part water, place in containers, and then let dry. I only let mine dry over night and they were still a bit too damp so I would suggest letting them dry for at least two days.
Now it's normally best to wait until a somewhat warmer day to open up a hive, just so they don't loose too much heat. But I was worried about these bees starving and dying so I opened up the hive when I got the chance. It's better to feed the bees when it's cold, then wait until you manage to get a day above 30 degrees and risk the bees starving to death. I placed the cakes right on top of the frames in an empty small box I would normally use for honey frames, as the cakes are too thick to place the inner cover over.
It's supposed to get up into the high 30's tomorrow. So if I get the chance I'm going to open up the hive again to see how much they have eaten and give them the rest of the sugar cakes, just so I get an idea of how often they are going to need to be fed. If they survive the winter, they will get switched back to a thick sugar syrup as soon as the temperature allows and will be fed until the first good spring bloom. I have my fingers crossed, hopefully because I noticed they were out of food I can get them through the winter.