The first 7 days of winter have been mild. Yesterday was 57⁰ F with bees flying so a quick hive inspection was possible. I checked for stores in the top box and noted both the cluster size and location. I found plenty of capped honey in the top box with the clusters mostly in the 2nd and 3rd super. My hives are currently 4 medium supers.
I find it helpful to note the day length increases starting in mid January. From January 1 to February 28 there is a 2 hour increase in day length and March adds an additional hour. There is a 2015 day length chart on this site giving me a guide as to what the bees will be seeing. I’m firmly convinced that day length rather than temperature is the driving factor in brood production and that the bees will consume much more stores in February than in January because they are gearing up for the hive’s reproduction urge. There are not enough warm days to give them the signal that spring is coming by temperature alone. Day length has been genetically programmed into them. Light/dark ratio is the only solid “clock” they have. The day length cycle hasn’t changed for millions of years but climate has.
What this all means to me is that one needs to pay special attention in late January through late February because the honey and protein stores can be depleted very quickly in February. When there is not enough protein, the bees destroy any February eggs and larvae in an attempt to survive. Then when the first flowers arrive in mid-to- late March, there are not enough young bees to gather pollen and nectar. The hive collapses because the bees from last October are too old and there are not enough young bees to run the hive and bring in new supplies. People will say “my hive died in winter but had lots of honey”. To my way of thinking what died were old bees from last October and there were no young February bees to run the hive because protein was depleted and the cluster size got too small. I use candy boards with an embedded chunk of protein supplement. Usually the protein supplement is totally used and the sugar is only partially used.
There is an old saying that if your bees are alive by dandelion bloom, they will have made it through winter. I agree with this, but think that the hive needs young bees to visit the dandelions and maple trees for that first spring food supply.