Winterizing honey hives on our farmDecember 13, 2022
As I write this blog and look out the window, a light snow is falling, the wind is blowing, and the temperatures are falling. By Christmas, overnight lows will be below 0. By January, some nights colder and windier still. A question I'm often asked is "how do bees survive the winter?" My answer is "just like penguins in Antarctica." They form a cluster inside the hive, shiver to create heat, and the worker bees slowly cycle between the interior and exterior of the cluster. The queen is always in the interior. While I've never measured it, experts say the temperature of the cluster stays around 80 F. Being a microbiologist and having heat and mass transfer beat into me both in college and my work life, I know that heat is always moving from high to low. A well insulated house takes less energy to keep warm. Bees in a poorly insulated and drafty hive require more energy (sugar) to make it through the winter and sometimes do not. Feral bees (bees in North America were introduced from Europe thus are feral, not wild) found in nature often inhabit tree hollows. These have an R-value of 6 or greater. Over time, like a few months during summer, the bees locate and seal any drafty holes with something called propolis. Here at Country Road Bees we use commercial boxes as bee hives. Because they are moved to different locations throughout the summer, and my back is not as strong as it used to be, a lighter construction is preferable. To compensate, the hives are prepared for winter with earnest around Thanksgiving. After feeding and mite treatments, they are wrapped with insulation and set in an area sheltered from the worst of the wind and snow.
As mentioned, stored sugar is essential for the bees and is why they produce honey. But honey is how the beekeeper makes a living and the excess is harvested. To make sure the bees have plenty of stores, the honey harvested at Country Road Bees is in a box kept separate from where the bees store their over wintering supply. Excess is stored in a honey super whereas the bees live in the brood box. Unfortunately, this year was abnormally dry and the fall nectar flow was short. To make up the shortfall, the bees were provided table sugar dissolved in water starting in October. What, that's not natural! Table sugar is made up of two simple sugars, fructose and glucose. Nectar is the same two simple sugars. The main difference is nectar contains other nutrients absent from processed sugar and bees would eventually die if that was all they ate. But won't that funny honey contaminate the good stuff? Again, the answer is no.
A minimum of 20,000 bees in November is necessary for a strong colony of bees in March when the bees colony starts expanding for the June honey flow. Throughout the winter months, bees slowly die and perhaps 10,000 of the November bees remain by Spring. To produce a pound of bees about 10 pounds of nectar, and 0.5 pounds of pollen, is necessary. A pound of bees is around 4,000 individuals. So, between early March and late April the bees will consume about 75 pounds of nectar just to make new bees. In Eastern Nebraska, the Willow and Red Maple trees produce pollen and nectar around the middle of March and other trees follow throughout the spring. All of the sugar water fed in the fall, along with the tree nectar, is consumed long before the start of the honey flow. Because March and April are unpredictable and often to cold for bees to fly, more sugar water is usually fed in the spring.
Between the need to grow young bees, and the separate honey super, the possibility of sugar water making it into the bottle is very low. In the spring, we add a green or blue food dye to the sugar just to be doubly sure.
Well, that's about it for this post. Like I said, it is a cold and blustery winter (almost) day. Time to take care of the chickens, feed the cats, and enjoy a whiskey.