It is a warm day in January, and while searching for a lost crossbow bolt I went to see my bee friends. A small number of bees were flying in and out. They seem to be darker in winter, and they were accessing the hive through the upper entrance hole. I noticed pollen balls on the legs of some; orange red, which comes from Henbit, a lamia which blooms all winter, especially in disturbed soils, in temperate climates like ours.
My cousin Caroline in Germany, who also keeps bees, made me think of writing about my girls. I think the three issues for a post about bees in winter are preparation, worrying, and if you aren’t doing bees yet, getting ready to become a beekeeper.
Let’s start with the deliciousness of what it is like to keep bees. The lovely little golden fuzzy girls fly happily amongst the flowers, burying their heads in the fragrant trumpets, gathering nectar and pollen for their community, pollinating the plant kingdom. During a honeyflow, which is when nectar bearing flowers are in full bloom- black locust trees, for example, the air is filled with the soft hypnotizing hum as the bees pour in and out of the hive. You can sit right next to the hive and watch them. They are peaceful, especially the Italian variety. I have watched a bee walk across the top rim of my sunglasses. They only sting when they feel they must give their lives to protect the hive, or if you scare them, like by crushing them accidentally. As they come to know you, you can dispense more and more with protection. I have generally stopped wearing gloves, and I only put on my veil if I am taking out frames. Working bees is fascinating- the structure of the frames, the broodcomb, dividing hives. The honey is orgiastic- tasting honey from an individual cell is like tasting the esssence of a thousand flowers. When you look at the honey flowing out of a frame sometimes you can see that there are different shades of honey all blending together. I remember once accidentally breaking off a piece of uncapped honeycomb. Honey is ready at 18% water, so uncapped honey is thinner. This was during the black locust (acacia) honeyflow, and the honey was completely white. I will never forget the fragrance of that honey- just like the locust blossoms.
And of course globally the bees are in trouble. I believe that CCD (Colony Collapse Disorder) is caused by bees eating stored pollen from crops treated with neonicotinamides, which are systemic insecticides. (That link is informative but not the most to the point on neonicotinamides and bees. I will continue to search for a better one.) This means the seed has the poison on it, which gets inside the plant as it grows. The pesticide never washes off in the rain, and insects that eat it die, but….what about the people and animals ingesting the crop? Hmm. The farm I live on belongs to my parents and my uncle and aunt. It is farmed by a farmer on shares. My grandfather, who was not a farmer, gave this man the job so he wouldn’t have to go to Viet Nam. Bottom line: this farmer farms chemically and my family hasn’t found an alternative that they are comfortable with. So last spring the label I pulled off a seed bag used in a field 50 feet from where I sleep read “Roundup Techniology 2, Poncho DeKalb.” Poncho and Gaucho are two main neonicotinamide treated corn seeds.(This link does a better job of explaining what neonicotinamides do to protect plants, but shows zero comprehension of how they kill honeybees.) So I have an obligation, not only to try to solve this problem, but to support the bees. Einstein said that after the bees are gone, we have four years. Here is an article.
OK, if you want to keep bees this year you will need to jump on it, mainly because you will need to buy bees and you really need to order by the end of the year to be sure to get some. That being said, your best bet is to buy bees that are local to your area, so if you can locate a beekeeper who will sell you a couple of packages of bees that are accustomed to your conditions, and you can drive over and get them, that is really best. If you are ordering mail order bees, most companies sell beginner packages that give you everything you need to get started at a slight discount. The only way to get bee stuff cheaper is to locate someone who is getting out of it, because of old age or developing a bee allergy, etc. However then you are risking inheriting diseases as well as rotting bee boxes, etc. I think starting with 2 colonies is reasonable. It is enough that you can lose a colony and still be in business, it is a manageable expense, and it is a manageable workload. I buy equipment from Dadant, Mann Lake, and Brushy Mountain. But beekeepers area sociable and nerdy lot, so you will find a LOT on the net to learn from. Even more fun, find a beekeeping club near you. Mike Embrey, the entomologist who teaches an annual class (starts 1/19/13) at the University of Maryland Agricultural Extension down by the Aspen Institute gets all his current and former students healthy bee packages and you could still order now, if you happen to live on the Eastern Shore. But I am sure other beekeeping clubs also do this.
As for preparation, I have bee boxes and frames wrapped in plastic with mothballs in them to keep out the fell wax moth until my bees will need them as they expand. If I didn’t, I would look over my equipment as I was putting it away in the fall and make note of what to order as cash was available. Bee boxes come unassembled unless you want to pay more, so I would probably assemble them as I got time, and scrape and paint whatever bee boxes needed it. I usually do that in early spring though, so I don’t have to put things away again. recently lost several hives, and I overhauled the boxes and frames by way of processing my grief, so I’,m ready to go, but if this hadn’t happened I would be nailing together new frames, which are cheap, and putting new wax foundation into old frames I had scraped and scorched clean with a little propane torch, in case of insect eggs.
In winter I worry a lot about the bees because warm weather is actually bad for them. Yes they can take an eliminatory flight (read that as a potty break) and often there is a little forage, but the thing is that in winter bees form a tight ball in the hive, starting near the bottom, and work their way up. The workers cluster around the queen and slowly revolve in and out. If it is below 40F they can’t move, so they survive by slowly moving in and out of the warm ball, rolling though the combs they filled earlier. If we have a 70F day in January, as we often do these days, the bee ball expands, eating. Suddenly it gets cold again and the ball contracts, leaving the honey behind. The bees can starve to death inches away from their honey. I have found a dead hive in the spring that had many full frames. Of course there are many reasons a hive can die, but this post is about winter issues.
I am worried about varroa mites, which are like nasty little bee-sucking ticks, as I did detect some for the first time this fall. I don’t want to use chemicals, so I dusted them with superfine sugar. I made this in the blender (the Vitamix rocks), about 1/2 cup per deep box. After I sprinkled it between the frames I brushed it of the bars with a bee brush (very soft brush). The bees were all snowy and grooming themselves, thereby knocking off mites. I have a screened bottom board on the bottom of my bee hives, which means that mites which fall off can’t crawl back up. I had put a large piece of paper under the screen so I could see the mite fall, and it really does work. The problem is that this method works well when you do it every week, and in winter this would be bad for the bees. However the mites will be less active until spring, so I hope the girls can hang in there. In spring as the queen begins to lay I will be removing drone comb, This helps with varroa mites, because they tend to focus on the larger drone larvae, which the beekeeper can identify and remove most of. It’s not like there aren’t plenty of extra drones to sit around drinking beer, smoking cigarettes, and telling lies about the queen….
Well, wish us luck!