I’ve been keeping bees since 2008, and this is the first time I’ve been able to wish them a Merry Christmas in person.
On one hand—that’s a good thing. Until I aggressively treated Varroa (this was the first year that I would classify my treatments as aggressive), I experienced the typical late fall die-offs that Varroa cause. Didn’t have any die-offs this fall, so I actually had LOTS of bees to greet, and lots of opportunities to greet them as they zipped about seeking food. Want to attract their attention? Wear flower colors when they’re out flying in the winter, you’ll have dozens of friends uncomfortably crawling all over your shirt.
On the other hand, seeing bees actively checking out any and everything in December is likely not a good thing. That activity burns lots fuel, which they’re replenishing by eating their winter stores. In a typical Michigan winter, they’re tightly assembled and not burning much fuel. They cluster for warmth in practically a comatose state, shivering efficiently to keep the queen warm.
Bottom line: they’ve consumed more than normal the last three “balmy” months, and I hope they don’t run out of stores before the earth’s grocery stores re-open.
What can we do about it? As always, read and research to gain understanding about the issues, and figure out what you want to do about it. Here’s what I’m doing about it, and some thoughts.
Worrying lots, although that probably isn’t helping anyone.
Feeding 2:1 sugar syrup in an open-feed situation on days they’re out flying. By “flying” – I mean not just a half dozen bees leaving the hive for brief cleansing flights. Look for foraging behavior, and a dozen or more actively flying. If the temperature is sinking or about an hour before sunset, you may want to put the feed away. I’ve found if I leave it out, there’s always a handful of foragers who didn’t leave in time and perished from cold at the feeder.
Peeking at their emergency food ceiling to ensure something is still there. If it is 20-40 degrees, you can crack the top and assess in 2-4 seconds if they’ve devoured most of it, or what they still have. (You have a candy board at the top, or used the Mountain Camp Method, right?) If the emergency feed method is greatly diminished, add some sort of supplemental feed—being very efficient if weather demands. Note: we did this a lot last week, and in some cases found hundreds of bees chowing on their Mountain Camp. We surmise it was because it was warm enough for them to be roaming about the hive (40-65 degrees outside, but raining), and they decided to dash upward for food. That may be wishful thinking. Some of our hives seemed alarmingly light, so the Mountain Camp may be the extent of their larder at this point. (If “Mountain Camp” is an unfamiliar term, check out my hand-out on it in the Publications section of this site.)
Providing honey. Best thing for bees to eat? We’d saved some honey frames, and we took advantage of last week’s warm weather to add those to the top of a few colonies that seemed light. Remember, bees are “chimney eaters” – they generally cluster in the bottom boxes and consume the honey about and around them as it is softened by the heat of the cluster.
We also put out small amounts of honey where we open-fed, although the bees seemed to prefer the 2:1 sugar syrup.
Providing pollen substitute on days when they’re out flying—and this is not without some angst. You see, pollen stimulates brood rearing, and a problem with rearing brood in January is that there may not be enough bees to keep the bees-to-be warm while they’re developing … so we don’t want the queen to prematurely start laying. However, my bees (yep, pretty sure they were mine) were attacking my neighbor’s bird feeder (containing cracked corn), and carrying off what appeared to be pollen, so I’m assuming they want some. If winter shows up as expected this week, I probably won’t have to worry any longer as they won’t be flying anyway.
Checking out other things because I was there. During one Mountain Camp peek, I found mold growing—indicating the hive was not sufficiently vented. (Drilled a few more half inch holes in the upper hive bodies.) I scraped dead bees out the doorway of a few others, because it’d been too cold for them to carry out the bees dying from (hopefully just) natural attrition. I looked about for limbs that may be ready to fall or other things amiss, and my just looking about was rewarded by—ALLELUIA—finding a hive tool I misplaced last summer.
Winter as we tend to think of it (freezing temperatures) is allegedly seeping into our area soon. I’m not looking forward to shoveling the drive, slipping on ice, and hearing the furnace run. However, I will be relieved when the temperatures are more conducive to our bees efficiently using their waning stores, so I can return to my normal worrying about them, things like – are they missing me as much as I’m missing them?
Happy New Year everyone, and please use this bee off-season to read, ponder and plan for Spring. It’ll be here before we know it, right?
For most beekeepers, what to get us as a gift is easy—bees. Like chocolate and money, you can probably never have too many. But, if your budget or backyard don’t allow you to get more bees for your favorite beekeeper, here are a few other gift suggestions.
One of the two things that I ALWAYS have when working bees (beyond Hubby and my protective suit) is the Kent Williams hive tool–the reddish, well-worn one pictured. No other j-hook hive tools that I’ve found compare (sure, the blue one has a hook … but it doesn’t compare.) To me, the key feature is the perpendicular pry bar edge (on the left of its photo.) That allows you to hook a frame with the wonderfully long hook, and then leverage the frame out using the side of the hive body. It also is tapered from the right end well up the shaft; most j-hooks are only tapered a quarter-inch or so. The longer hook is also helpful when wrestling a well-propolized frame. Just google ‘Kent Williams hive tool’ — lots of places carry them. Other than the hive tool not coming to me when I call it (after I have of course misplaced it), it is PERFECT.
Background: I began keeping bees with a death threat hanging over my head. My husband Tom had been diagnosed with colorectal cancer, and needed me to care for his two bee-loved colonies while he aggressively fought the disease.
Wanting to support him however I could, I bee-grudgingly took care of his doggone stinging insects, and in the process, fell head-over-hive tool in love with them.
When Tom passed about a year later, the bees helped me grieve by giving me frequent challenges and the occasional sweet reward of honey, and motivating me to focus on the future and plan for next season. I will forever be grateful for the assistance from these angels with real wings.
In this season of Thanksgiving, I’m reflecting on other bee-related things in my life for which I’m immensely grateful. They include:
BEES: as without these vital pollinators, our dinner table would lack pumpkin pie, cranberries, applesauce and blueberry muffins. They’re also helpful for pollinating Brussel sprouts, but frankly—I think we can do without those.
STINGS: I marvel at inter-species communication—like when my dog climbs next to me and places her paw on my leg; or when the bees buzz loudly about me, but then settle down and check me out with amused curiosity. It is magical when they perch on my hand and gaze at me (with lots more eyes than I have) while I gaze back with a mere two eyes. I swear they smile. Continue reading Some Things for Which I Bee Thankful→
My phone, and my colonies, are buzzing. The phone with questions, the latter with bees. Here are some things I suggest you bear in mind this time of year for colonies located in climates similar to SW Michigan. Yes, this is a long post. There’s a lot going on in a colony this time of year!
Caution: spring has had fits and starts, and when your colony was installed and whether it was a nuc or a package plays a huge role in its progress. Thus, I’m refraining from saying “here’s about where they should be build-out wise” because of the variances. Instead, I’m just sharing Q&A from the last few weeks.
Good looking queen, but verify that she’s laying one egg / cell and predominantly worker bees, not drones. Thanks Dr. Stephanie for the picture..
I’ve been rapping sharply on my hives every few weeks now. Most of them answer back with either a soft, barely discernable “chatter” or a significant “YES WE’RE IN HERE QUIT BOTHERING US!” quite audible roar. Unfortunately I know that bees alive mid-February doesn’t always translate to bees alive in April, but I find their reply reassuring.
Some of the hives are silent. I know from experience this doesn’t necessarily mean they’re dead, but if it is repeatedly silent every time I knock … well, time to at least draft their obituary.
Disrupting them with a knock probably isn’t best for them, but I want some idea of how many colonies are still alive. Now is the time to line-up sources lots of colonies will need to be replaced.
With a bee overwintering die-off rate of about 30%, I have few reasons to think our survival rate will be better. It was a cool, damp summer, and many of our hives went into fall without ample stores. We’ve had some bitter weather, and who knows—other than that giant rodent Phil—how long until spring.
Experience has taught me a great deal, but I’m still in the steep part of the beekeeping learning curve. Of course, my 77-year-old beekeeping buddy Jim, with a half-century of beekeeping under his belt, says he’s also still in the steep part of the learning curve!
I continue to learn a great deal about beekeeping. One thing I’ve learned is that just when you think you have it all figured out, the bees will fool you. (And I swear, they giggle a little bit as they do it.)
In the October 1925 edition of Modern Beekeeping, Ralph Ziegler shared a thought that always jars me a bit, and makes me reflect, plan, and ponder:
“…we are inclined to wonder how many of those who started with bees last spring are still beginners and how many are real beekeepers.
All have no doubt made mistakes.
Those who have blamed themselves for their errors, taking steps to correct them and prevent their happening again are real beekeepers, while those who blame the bees, the weather, the package bee shipper, the equipment manufacturers and everything else in sight are still just beginners.”
This is the time of year to order more bees if you think you might need them, and to reflect on what you might do differently to increase success. There are plenty of great bees’ schools this time of year, and plenty of great resources to help you figure out ways to improve.
You will undoubtedly, at some point, have winter losses. But one characteristic of a beekeeper is that hope springs eternal.
Please ponder your methods, and if you have losses, please get right back on the horse. The bees need us to do so.
Pollinators are responsible for one out of every three bites of food we eat. They deserve our salute and support for that alone.
But beyond that, the food for which bees are integral is the food we really love—pumpkins for pumpkin pie, apples for sauce, the cranberries on the Thanksgiving table. Thanks bees!
One way you can show your thanks is to give them something to eat if the weather cooperates again. Last balmy Sunday, we poured 2:1 sugar syrup in a shallow tray, complete with sticks so they don’t drown. They were delighted to find it; we were enthralled watching them. Continue reading Honey Bear in Mind: Bee Thankful→
I’ve often said “the bees are laughing at me, I might as well join them.” I’ve chronicled the events that lead to their laughter in both my book, Dronings from a Queen Bee: The First Five Years, and a column I’ve written since beginning beekeeping. In due time I’ll be posting those writings here.
The other blog available from this site, “Honey, Bear in Mind…” covers what to do in the apiary depending upon the time of year, for a climate similar to SW Michigan.