Thursday, February 8, 2018

"Six More Weeks"

Well, Groundhog Day happened last week and the old guy saw his shadow, so I guess we have six more weeks of winter.  We were all expecting it here in Minnesota.  We are in that long, quiet stretch of winter where we are starting to feel it's "too cold," but we know that we haven't hit the typically coldest part of the year yet. 

Because we moved last fall, we weren't able to put as much energy as we typically do into winterizing and monitoring our hives.  I took a trip out in January to see how things were going.

Surprisingly, walking up to this was not as alarming as one might think.

A healthy colony can lose between 30 and 40 thousand bees over the winter so the fact that they were dumped outside is actually a sign that things might be ok inside.  Bees are naturally clean - beekeepers call this "hygienic," and it means they keep a clean and healthy living environment. We might be more alarmed this time of year if we walked out to a hive and saw nothing outside.

A question I have been asked before is, How do you tell when a colony has died?  In the summer, we are able to really get into a hive if we need to look, but it is a little different in the winter.  Mainly, we do not want to unnecessarily expose a living colony to the cold. 

The bees work extremely hard in the fall to seal up every crack in the hive in order to be able to maintain temperature around the queen.  They use propolis, a sticky substance they collect from tree buds.  It acts like a sealant or varnish and they really do an amazing job of filling in all the spaces they need to.   Here is a close-up of what I found when I opened one hive: everything is glued in place. The photo doesn't show it, but the lids are even glued on to the boxes, and the boxes together.  Propolis really deserves its own discussion, which I will aim for in the next season.

So, with maintaining temperature being a major goal, the first check we always do isn't to open the hive at all.  We kneel down right next to the hive, put our ear right up to the box, and listen.  If we can hear buzzing, that's a good sign.  If not, we usually know the colony hasn't made it. 

After I could tell that two of our hives were making no sound, I carefully took off the lids and listened again.  In both hives, I found where the cluster of bees had made it to within the hive.  Sometimes a beekeeper can get clues as to how the bees met their demise from where they are in the hive and how the bees themselves are positioned, but I will talk about that another time.  As an example, though, you can see below what it looked like when I had found that this colony had died off.  This is a top view, so the cluster followed this round shape down into these frames.  A cluster of bees moves upward throughout the winter, and both colonies that died had bees that made it up to the third box.

We are very happy that one of our hives has made it through winter *so far*.  It is an exhilarating feeling to stick your ear right up next to the hive, cold air all around, the pines being the only green you can see, and hear a strong buzzing sound inside those boxes.  This colony had made it up about as far as the others, so we cleared out the dead bees reduced the entrance again, and gave them an extra box of honey and a few "come one bees!" cheers.

This colony that has survived so far happens to be the one that Little Miss Bee has claimed as her own.  She helped with some inspections this season, and I love to see her taking some ownership since one of my favorite parts of beekeeping is how we have continued to do it as a family as much as possible.

Here is a photo of Little Miss Bee next to her hive "then" (the end of the summer)...

...and "now."

The hive is a little shorter since we harvested honey and we try to manage the space that the bees have to keep warm inside.  The girl is a little taller because, well, they just keep growing!

We know that the hardest months for bees are still ahead, but we hope for our bees to make it.  If this colony does survive, we are looking forward to "splitting it," which means we would separate it into two hives, promoting the good, hearty genetics of those bees. We are already discussing our order for bees for this next year, and I am really looking forward to the sights, sounds, and smells of beekeeping again.

This year, we will have another factor in our beekeeping - a new furry family member: Scout.