January is not a month for bee colony inspection. But that does not keep us from worrying about them. So what can we do with our bees this month (besides just worrying)?
It is possible to roughly group our overwintered colonies into two groups per our last fall judgement/inspection. We sought to have mostly strong colonies with abundant honey stores. However, were the populations too large and our bees have already eaten most of their winter stores? Unfortunately, we likely also had one or more weaker colonies, maybe colonies still with higher mite drops or perhaps colonies lighter on food stores or were nucs we sought to overwinter. Have they survived so far and will they still be OK through February?
In our relatively mild January we have already had more than one day when the sun was out and the temperature reached into the high 50s. Those were good days to look at colony entrance flight (you may have noted pollen foragers if you looked closely) and heft colonies from the back to check on their weight. Most colonies, those both large and small will have consumed relatively few winter stores by January. Need for honey (and stored bee bread) will increase as brood rearing ramps up this month. Our December weather was not very severe and there were reports of stronger overwintering colonies still rearing brood.
On those warmer days it is OK to pop covers and look inside between the frames (resist lifting out frames). If the colony appears to be light in weight and already beneath the top cover of the top box consider supplying sugar. The sugar can be dry, placed on inner cover or on newspaper on top bars. I think a better option is to make sugar bricks. The easiest way to make a brick (think sugar cubes for use in a hot liquid like coffee) is to put sugar in some container (tin pie plates, plastic food container) and add enough water to mix the sugar into a paste-like consistency. Let the mixture stand overnight to solidify.
Place one or more bricks directly on the top bars where you see the bee cluster. If you use a Vivaldi board turn it upside down to make enough space. Alternately add an empty super as spacer. You can also put the brick directly on your inner cover right the access hole. You want it positioned so that the heat from the bees will turn the underside of the sugar brick into a slurry so bees can lap it up. Avoid liquid feed this early in season as you may add moisture stress. Some think feeding drivert or fondant sugar (your own or commercial) to be stimulatory but there is little direct evidence this to be so. If your bees are starving any sugar may help rescue a colony.
We may still get some winter storms so it is still good to check hives after a winter storm to be sure hive covers are still in place. With softened ground some hives may topple off a hive stand; they need to be righted. January is also a good time to scrape frame tops and boxes of extra comb and propolis. Otherwise, January is a good time to get caught up on our bee literature reading. There are new editions of Beekeeping for Dummies (the 5th), The Beekeepers Handbook (also the 5th), the ABC & XYZ of Beekeeping (42nd edition). I have a new book The Complete Bee Handbook for individuals interested in beekeeping or for family members of beekeepers to help inform them of how fascinating bees really are; it indicates how bees came about, our association with them and why we need to work to Save the Bees.
Trust your bees do well this winter and enter spring strong. Let us hope for an early spring so we can immerse into our bee care to help us forget about 2020.