A beekeeper in Washington state writes: I live in Carlton, WA. We just had a devastating wildfire that burned nearly 400 square miles and is still burning. My bees survived, although the fire burned within a foot of their hives. They are in my garden, which is full of flowers and blooming herbs and veggies – so there is a small bit of foraging food within the garden, but all of the wildflowers that they visited are now gone. They appeared to have eaten some of their honey stores during the fire, and there is not enough vegetation around for them to adequately create and store more food for Winter. There is not much information out there on the effect of wildfire on honeybees and how to care for them through the next Winter. Have you had any experience with this? What do you suggest?
Phil replies: Congratulations on your narrow escape. I just received an email from a friend reporting that her cousin recently lost his hives in a Washington wildfire. You are not alone.
For now – and at least until Spring – you are, in effect, living in a desert. You will have to be prepared to provide all the resources that your hives need. This includes not only carbohydrates (in the form of sugar syrup as a honey substitute), but also protein (in the form of patties as a replacement for pollen).
Your first step is to assess your hives’ immediate needs. Go through them and count frames of stored honey, both full and partial, and make notes. Each hive needs a minimum of two or three deep frames of honey at all times; later, of course, they will have to have more to get them through the Winter. If you do not see the necessary minimum in the hives now, it’s time to do some feeding. Mixing a thick syrup of two parts granulated sugar to one part water will encourage the bees to use what they need immediately and store the rest as reserves.
In the Fall, the colony’s focus should change to the raising of brood, and its food requirements will change also. September and October are for rearing Winter bees – the ones which will survive until Spring and supply the biomass to provide warmth to the hive throughout the Winter. Normally, this activity is stimulated by the Autumn nectar flow. If you don’t see fresh nectar being deposited in the cells in early September (which I doubt you will), you will have to imitate a flow by feeding a thin syrup of equal parts water and sugar. Since your goal at this time is to encourage brood production and not the storage of food reserves, don’t let the bees occupy too much of the brood space with syrup. Stop feeding for a while if they fill up more than few frames. In the meantime, as larvae start to develop, the nurse bees will need protein. In the absence of natural pollen sources, you’ll have to purchase some protein patties. Place one on the top bars of the top brood box in each hive, and keep a patty on throughout September and October. If they consume most of one, add another.
In the middle of October, it’s time for the hives’ focus to change again – this time to storing food for Winter. About the 10th of the month, switch back to a thick syrup, 2:1 sugar to water. The bees will tend to store the thicker syrup, and you can give them as much as they will take. Each hive will need about 50 pounds of stored syrup, in the absence of honey, to get through the Winter. A deep frame full of syrup provides about six pounds of food reserves, a medium frame about four, and a shallow frame about two and a half. Normally, by mid-October the colonies start cutting back on brood production and begin to fill the top brood box with honey. Under these most abnormal conditions, the change to thicker syrup will help prompt that behavior. A full medium box or a mostly full deep, together with what is stored in the bottom, will go a long way toward meeting your hives’ Winter food needs.
In the Spring, it is to be hoped, there will be new plant growth, a re-flowering, and fresh nectar being brought into the hive. Early in the season, watch for pollen on the legs of returning bees; if there is pollen, there is likely nectar as well. In Spring, as in Fall, you want to see brood being raised. Monitor your hives closely for fresh nectar, pollen, and brood. If you’re lucky, things will be back to normal, but it’s possible that there will still be dearths created by the fire. Let what you see in the hives be your guide.