I think winter has arrived today. While there have been snows earlier this fall, they melted quickly. I think this will stay around for a while – maybe until April. Beekeepers do lots of work to prepare their bees for winter – some starting in mid-summer. Some beekeepers start blasting their hives with chemicals in the summer to kill mites. Others harvest much of the honey and then spend the fall feeding their bees sugar water to make up for what they took. Some in northern climates insulate their hives, some don’t.
The bees have been gearing up for winter since the summer solstice. The queen slowed down her egg production. By September, she started laying “winter bees” – fatter bees that can survive several months instead of 4-6 weeks. The workers have been storing honey to use as food for the winter to keep them warm. Some colonies have closed up the hive entrances with propolis – disinfectant bee glue. (I find that the hives I have under cottonwood trees make much more propolis).
The drones (males) get kicked out of the hive because they don’t really do any work inside and they eat a lot of honey. There’s no mating going on in the winter, so there’s no use for lay abouts in the hive. The queen will make new ones in the spring.
In my top bar hives, I leave at least 14 bars of comb in the hive – 8-10 of those are mostly honey. Honey is a much better food source than sugar water (and all natural) and it also acts as a thermal barrier – retaining heat. If the hive doesn’t make it through the winter, I’ll have honey to harvest in spring or honey to feed back to my other hives if they’ve eaten most of theirs.
Over the last few years, I’ve taken to insulating my hives. In nature, bees live in trees surrounded by the thick wood of the tree. My hives are mostly made of true 1″ width wood (unlike the 3/4″ wood you get in most lumber stores), but a tree usually has 3-5″ of wood surrounding the combs. I add 2″ foam board on most of my hives which adds a little more insulating effect, but still less than the wood of a tree. Corwin Bell of the Backyard Hive came out with a new (expensive) insulating idea using wool. I’ll be interested to see how well Corwin’s idea works – I’m afraid it will be a wonderful place for mice to chew through and nest.
For one of my new hives, I didn’t have any foam board, so I tried something different. I had some old fiberglass insulation laying around in my crawl space. I took an idea from an insulating wrap that Corwin gave for the Eldo hive and stuffed it in some plastic bags to make a wrap around the center of the hive where the brood is located. This hive also has an eco-floor – a layer of leaves and sticks (simulating the bottom of a hole in a tree) and an insulated lid.
Yesterday, it was up near 60°F (after being pretty cold all week) and the bees were flying about on their evacuation (poop) flights. Today is a different story with them all snug in their combs beneath their lids of snow.
The hive in the picture above has only 1″ foam insulation on the outside, but the inside also has 1″ insulation. Last year, I tried to overwinter the observation hive in it’s 5 frame box, but they didn’t make it. Since there weren’t enough bees in the observation hive to fill a full 10 frame box, I added 1″ insulation on the sides of a 10 frame deep and medium to make an 8 frame hive. The medium (super) is filled with honey combs from the Left Hand hive providing food and insulation. The population did expand after I moved them in and the last time I checked, there were plenty of bees inside. We’ll see if they make it through.
So far, I’ve only lost one hive this year before the cold weather set in – Left Hand hive – the Langstroth box. I got a call one day from the owner of the land that it sits on that there was a bear that had attacked chickens nearby. Since I don’t have a bear fence around that hive and I was going out of town for 2 weeks, I decided to move the hive to my backyard for the winter. This hive was bustling with bees a few weeks before. When Diana and I picked up the hive to put it in my truck, she stumbled and we dropped the hive. Instead of the expected loud roar of bees, there was only silence. But it was dark so I couldn’t really tell. We got it home and stupidly, I left the entrance open. The next day, since there were no bees (or not enough to defend it), I came home from work to find the hive completely overtaken by bees from my other hives and any other in the area. They robbed out most of the honey in the bottom boxes. Fortunately, I was able to put on a barrier to the super of honey and saved most of that. Another lesson learned.
Unfortunately, this robbing kept me from doing a true autopsy of the cause of the hive’s demise. However, I think that they got into the poisoned corn pollen from the fields nearby – the same fields that almost killed this hive in the spring. I’m not sure that this is a good place for a hive to survive, but they did make lots of honey!
We also lost the colony down at the Eldorado Mountain Yoga Ashram due to mites. Once again, the imported package bees died out. It’s much better to get bees locally from swarms and splits. My co-hort Karvari is understandably devastated by this – I’ve learned to take it in stride. We’ll try again next year.
Several of the places I keep bees have chickens (and ducks!). They are always interested in what I’m doing. Here they are watching me insulated the hives.
So now that winter has set in, it’s time for this beekeeper to start on winter tasks. As a kid, I always loved thumbing through the Sears & Roebuck Christmas Catalog. Now, I thumb through gardening and beekeeping catalogs for my wish list. But now for winter, there is equipment to clean and mend, candles and lip balms to make, and dreams of new bees dancing around in my head.