Winter Bee Care

In January the forecast said we’d have a big windy blow so Joseph and I went up and checked all our hives to be sure they were stable enough to withstand heavy winds. Years ago we had a hive blow over in a windstorm and I’ll never forget the trauma we (bees and me!) had trying to put the hive back together in cold, wet, blustery weather. Much easier to brace your hives so they stay standing. Even in urban fenced yards where you’d think the house and fences would provide wind protection, a good brisk gust of wind can blow them over, scattering bees and damaging comb. I’ve seen it and it’s awful. Don’t let that happen to your bees.

My winter prep now includes staking hives securely. Pound in 5′ high T-posts on opposite sides so your hive can’t tip. This works really well for Langstroth and Top Bar hives. I’ve done that with Warre hives, too, but these days I’ve made a decision to keep all our hives at least three feet off the ground. This keeps the ground’s dampness from entering the hives during our wintry rainy season.

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THE TREE HIVE

The tree hive is a story unto itself. This is what it looked like when we moved it here in November 2011. The bees got tossed around when the tree fell. They survived and are now happily living on our farm.

The tree had been cut down and only when it hit the ground did the chain saw guy realize a hive of bees was lived in a hollow section about 25′ up. They called me and I went up to see if we could save them.

With a front end loader we got it in the back of our pickup. When we got home we used another front end loader to position the trunk into place against a 5′ concrete pole set deep in the ground. We braced it with two ratcheting cables around the bottom half. Joseph made a “hat” that kept the weather out. Because they’d lost their entire store of honey (that part smashed when the tree hit the ground), I fed them back pretty much most of the honey I had from my other hives. That’s why I’m a honey hoarder. When something like this happened, I had enough honey to carry them through to spring.

The hive did really well last year but this summer during the drought, the alder started to split and I didn’t think it would make it through another winter. 

Anticipating moving it, I put a two box Warre hive on top and by fall most of the hive moved up into it for winter. I really didn’t want to move it at all but the splits in the sides were getting wider and compromising the hive, so finally in September Joseph and our friend Tel chainsawed off the upper few feet and, with the Warre on top, moved it under cover about 15′ away. Traumatic as the move was to me, the bees took it really well. 

I was still concerned about the integrity of the trunk so I put three Lang boxes around the base, just in case. The trunk sits snugly inside it and if any splits get bigger, the frame will hold the base together. Because the hive directly faces the wind, I nailed a cross-brace behind it so the wind couldn’t push it over. Then we tied the whole thing securely to the base of the structure.

DSCF9768

Now when the wind blows, I feel a LOT better knowing everyone is safe. If you haven’t done this to your hives, go ahead. It will prevent problems later.

 

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WINTER ENTRANCES

When summer ended we put smaller doors on the hive entrances. This keeps the interior of the hive from getting too drafty and also prevents mice from getting inside. I check the hive entrances every few days to be sure the dead bees they carry out don’t clog the entrance. On warmer days, like this one in December, they went out and found yellow pollen somewhere. I slid the entrance door open a bit wider so they could come in more easily. You have to watch when you do that… soon as it starts cooling down I put it back to the winter-size opening.

mouseguard
This is the “mouse guard” that Joseph made. We put one of these in the entrance of each of our square hives. The screw makes it easy to remove, especially when dampness makes the wood swell.

This is the entrance to one of the hives in the Bee Gazebo. I was a little late getting the smaller entrance on it so the bees went ahead and propolized the wide entrance down to the size they want it. They used the red-gold propolis to make a few small openings across the front. No wind swooping in here, just places for bees to crawl through to go inside. Clever, eh?

Just so you don’t worry, know that all the hives have some die-off. That’s natural attrition. The hives on our upper deck have a tarp underneath them and that makes it easy for me to see every bee that gets dragged outside. The daily clean outs number anywhere from 20-50 bees a day, even up to 100 if they haven’t been outside for awhile. That’s normal. If your hive is on grass, you won’t see this because the grass hides the dead bees but they’re still there.

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CAN I LOOK AT MY BEES IN WINTER?

I’m so glad you asked.

You won’t see much activity this time of year. On days that have a bit of sun you may see some bees come out for quick elimination runs. They fly out 15-30′, poop in air and fly right back inside. Our car is parked due south of two hives and on a poop day we find little orange dots on our windshield. Aside from that, everyone’s slumbering in the cluster. Don’t open the hive because it will cause a drastic heat loss, too much for the sleepy bees to easily make up and it disturbs them from their deep rest.

I have had people call me to say their bees died. When I ask, usually they recount a scenario like this:

“It was sort of warmish so I opened the hive to have a look. All the bees were dead on the comb so I emptied them out and took the remaining honey out. I’ll try again next year.”

Let me take this story apart and tell you what most likely really happened.

It was sort of warmish …
Below 65 degrees is sort of coldish to bees. If you’re not wearing shorts and a t-shirt, it’s a cold day in bee-land.

… so I opened the hive to have a look. 
Opening the hive releases any little pocket of heat they have. In winter it’s really hard for them to accrue heat because they don’t move much and therefore don’t burn many calories. When they need to make heat, they eat more honey which depletes their stores. Over the course of the winter, less activity is better because it conserves their honey.

All the bees were dead on the comb …
They may look dead but if they’ve taken themselves down to torpor they’re just asleep. Torpor is a suspensory state, not a full hibernation. Torpor is a metabolism slow-down that lets them go into a stuporous sleep that is hard to rouse from. If there’s been a real cold spell just before this, torporous bees look like they froze to death on the comb. When you look inside, you really can’t tell who’s dead and who’s asleep. They are deep in winter meditation, communicating with the sleeping flower spirits and we don’t want to disturb that.

… so I emptied the dead ones out and took the remaining honey. 
Oh no! At this point you can’t fix it. Someone called me a few years ago who did just this. He brought the dead hive into the basement, took the honey combs out and put the honey into jars for the family. A few hours later he went downstairs and was surprised to find the combs crawling with woken bees. They’d been in torpor and now that they’d warmed up and were awake, he was stuck. He couldn’t put them back in the hive to cluster because he’d taken their food and also removed all but a few bars of comb which didn’t leave them enough comb and insulation to survive. They had no home to go back into.

… I’ll try again next year.
And if you do, please don’t open up the hive when they’re at their most fragile. Believe me, I get calls like this all the way into springtime. Best to leave them without disturbance and let them rouse up on their schedule. Give them every good chance to make it through to spring.

Sometimes new beekeepers get nervous when they see a bunch of dead bees on the ground outside the hive. That’s actually a GOOD sign. It means the bees inside are cleaning up and have good hive hygiene.

Remember that the number of bees in a winter hive is a constantly changing number. Older bees die off every week. That’s normal.

Every week I look at my hives on the deck and can see how many dead bees get carried outside the entrance, then picked up and flown off a few feet and dropped. Because they’re on a tarp rather than in the grass, I have a perfect head count of the hive’s attrition.

At first the number of dead bees was alarming but now I know that a hundred dead bees outside the  hive on a warmish day is pretty normal. If a hive goes into winter with 30,000 bees and comes out the other end with 12,000, the hive did okay, even if 18,000 bees died over the winter. Believe me, the hive is still viable.

No matter how much you want to look, control the urge. As a friend of mine once said, “Good news is worth waiting for. Bad news will keep.”

warmly, Jacqueline Freeman      copyright 2013, all rights reserved