Friday, April 9, 2021

Starting Our Fifth Year of Beekeeping & Winter Update


There's a joke in beekeeper circles that everyone becomes an expert in year three....  and then humbled again by year five. Or... something like that. I think we've been pretty humbled from the start (!) but are certainly older and wiser than we were five years ago and eager to start a new season. So let me start by giving a little update on where we screwed up last fall. Yeah.  HUMBLED.

Before I start my long-form version of what we're up to, let me again plug our social media-- since some of you might be new:

Our Instagram account is just for pretty pictures and our Twitter is the place to go for more regular updates and announcements of where we will be selling and what the bees are up to. The blog (here) is more of a long-term resource for pricing info and whatever I feel like rambling on about when I get around to writing.

Also by way of full disclosure-- You'll often see pictures of my wife Alice here... but these posts are all written by Matt. I guess I need to get better about taking bee yard selfies??  AH.  Here we go-- I'm come back to add this one and show off our new t-shirts:

Going into winter 2020-21 we had five hives in good, seemingly flourishing condition. We treated all of them for mites, winterized them and made sure everyone had a good supply of food/sugar as the cold temperatures began to take hold. 

What we failed to do was to look objectively at the situation in each hive and coldly assess their chances in case of a prolonged winter-- in short, we were sentimental. I think we incorrectly felt that every hive and every queen deserved a fair chance. 

The winter before we had combined two hives into one, but that was only after one became queenless. In that scenario, we knew the hive without a queen was doomed and felt that their surviving population would only strengthen the relatively weak hive we merged them with-- and it worked. 

This year, we did not combine the two weakest hives...  and we should have.

 The Purdue hive was one we had considered replacing the queen of anyway, since they have always been the "lazy" hive that didn't seem to produce much of anything. The white nuc had consistently seemed to be stronger and more industrious and we were thinking of moving that queen over. 

Best we can figure, the population dwindled and the queen didn't lay enough eggs to ensure there would be a large enough cluster to keep them warm. The hive was full of honey and had lots of sugar, but the bees froze because they were too few. 

Just in case the hive was done in by a higher than expected mite load, we treated all the hives again once the snow subsided enough that we could make the trip down into the apiary. At that time everyone else was still looking good, so we just made sure the dead hive was bundled up to keep out mice and other pests that would eat the leftover honey.

A few weeks later, on another less-snowy day, I made the trip down to tromp around the apiary and listen to the hives for buzzing. You can usually hear them through the side-- the hardest part is figuring out where in the hive they are clustered. On a warmer day (like 40 degrees or more) you may see a couple flying out to relieve themselves (uh-hem) and otherwise verify that the hive is still alive.

I was concerned about what I perceived was a problem with the green nuc. We have never over-wintered the green nuc and could not move them into the Purdue hive's boxes after that queen/colony died because it was too cold... And I was right to be concerned.

Once it warmed up enough I could explore under the cover without risking the bees, I popped the lid and found death inside. Bees don't smell when they're dead, btw-- but it's more the way everything feels.

When a hive is alive, they keep the cluster-- and the wax and frames by proxy-- warm all year round. So the components of the hive move and slide with some persuasion and the wax is soft and sticky. 

When a hive is dead, the heat of the living bees is gone. The wax freezes and hardens, becoming extremely brittle and everything is seized together. You're sometimes more likely to break the wooden frame than break the wax, because the wax has lost all its elasticity. It just becomes the embodiment of cold and dead... 

Here's an overview of where we were by March. The two dead hives were sealed up and left to store outside until it warmed up enough we could assess them.

The two remaining large hives were confirmed to be doing well and the white Styrofoam nuc (in the back left of the picture) we were quite confident was fine but just clustered deep. It's harder to hear them through the foam vs. the wooden boxes.

When the weather warmed up, we were able to make our first real hive checks since last fall -- and we took the opportunity to spread out the honey left over from the dead hives to rebalance and strengthen the remaining colonies and move the white nuc into the Purdue boxes.

We also saw two of the three queens during that process (which is still a thrill and a sense of "honor" to have an "audience with the queen," even after 5 years), bolstering our hopes that we'd make it through the lingering winter with those that had survived that far.

Winter had ONE MORE chilly few days after that-- and we were quite concerned!!-- but when I checked on the hives afterwards, I was delighted to find a LOT of bees out and working. We will expand back into the two now-vacant nucs as swarm season approaches. I've already made some structural changes to the green nuc to make it more winter-worthy, but I think we will try and avoid overwintering in the green nuc and instead use single full-size boxes.

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