And, The Winner Is…

A.V. Walters-

hives

Home, sweet home.

Where is winter? We have no snow. Though the ENSO (El Nino Southern Oscillation) typically gives us a mild winter—this is the most extreme in forty years of Michigan, El Nino tracking. The temperatures are hovering in the mid 40s during the day, some days it’s warmer. If I’d known, I’d have planted chard, and maybe garlic. On warmer days, our bees are out and about, but I have no idea what they’re doing. There’s very little blooming in this odd December weather. I’ve heard that bees enjoy the occasional mid-winter jaunt—out to stretch their wings and to defecate. Like most creatures, they hate to soil the nest.

The mild season poses tough questions for us as newbee beekeepers. On one hand, the bees, so far, have not been subjected to the temperature extremes of the past few years. That must be good. On the other, they are out and about and active—potentially increasing their caloric needs. How do we balance this out? It’s like the old question, do you get wetter walking or running in the rain?

We were all ready to harvest some honey in October—but it didn’t get cold. We could see the bees out there, still gathering. So we waited and debated. We are in this, for the bees, and honey is a fringe benefit, not the primary objective. Our first inclination was to leave all the honey for the bees during the winter—perhaps to harvest a little in the spring. Our bee group looked at us like we were crazy. Not only was that a waste (in their view), they added that a hive, top-heavy with frozen honey, was a liability for winter survival. That swung us back towards a harvest. All this extra warm time has only compounded our confusion.

We have two issues: winter-wrap and harvest. In northern climates, beekeepers have a variety of bee protection measures to keep bees warm (other than carting them off to Florida.) There are simple hive-wraps, insulated hive-wraps, or baffled hive enclosures. Then, there are special feeding formulas, and the debate of the protein/carbohydrate balance suitable for winter nutrition. It’s daunting. The catalogues are full of bee pampering solutions, vitamins and herbal treatments. We shrug. Honey is bee food. We’ll leave them with their honey. After all, our goal was to keep Michigan-hardy bees. We selected our bees from Michigan over-wintered stock (not those pampered, Florida snowbirds.) We see over-pampering as part of the problem. As for the winter-housing, we do intend to wrap the hives when temperatures fall into the 20s on a regular basis. The biggest issue is to protect them from wind. Bees huddle and give off heat and moisture during the winter. The northern beekeeper must be careful not to impair circulation too much, because trapped moisture can lead to mold and mildew borne bee illnesses. Really, there are almost too many variables!

Finally, over the weekend, we did an inspection and took some honey. It was winter-warm—low 50s, so the bees were in slow-active mode. Mostly, they ignored us. At first blush, the hives looked terrible. We know that there is a normal fall die-off—but nothing prepared us for the mound of dead bees on the ground in front of each hive. Oddly, that may be good news. The location of the bee bodies (just below the entry) indicates that bees, dying in the hives, are being tossed out the front door—in a normal, housekeeping kind of way. A true hive collapse has few bodies—since the bees just fly away and die, mysteriously. Our active bees, though slowed by winter, look good. And the scouts are doing their jobs. Both Rick and I received “warning thunks” as we disrupted the hives, but no stinging.

We first investigated the two friendlier hives, Niña and Pinta. I’ve been worried about Pinta, since it was the first to slow down, back in October. We have limited experience, so we can only compare the three hives to each other. Pinta seemed listless—and had the most noticeable pile of corpses. But her guards were quick, and the bees inside were clumping in the middle—a good sign. We were disappointed that the top super (a hive box) held only some beeswax comb—no honey. Below, things looked good—plenty of honey and bees. We found the same situation with Niña, the other mild-mannered hive. We decided not to harvest honey from either of them. Maybe we are too conservative, but we’d like our bees to over-winter naturally.

Of course, the winner is Santa Maria, our beehive on steroids. Santa Maria, (our problem child of the summer) calmed down after we added an extra super to the hive. We think the aggressive behavior was just because the bees were busting out at the seams of their space. We’re lucky we caught it, and they didn’t swarm! This is the upside of an aggressive hive. They are industrious! These bees went right to work and filled that entire super with honey. We were shocked. Looking deeper, the hive had more than enough for winter—two full supers of honey! We relieved her of one whole super. (Ten frames from a standard, medium, Langstroth hive.)

This was the hive we were so anxious to trade! We’ll just have to learn to harness that energy, and keep them busy! (I remember parents saying things like that about us as kids. There may be something to it.) With this new appreciation for “busy as a bee,” we closed up the hives and carried off our bounty.

Next, we’ll deal with processing.

Note: I realize that the recycled photo, above, may give the wrong impression about the mild winter. I didn’t take pics when we harvested honey–so I used one from earlier in the summer. I didn’t think of it until later–but our trees are bare and most of the greenery is gone.

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