This has been our first winter of keeping honey bees on the farm. As with the rest of our first year, there has been a lot to learn, and the bees’ resiliency never ceases to amaze us.
We started preparing the bees for winter by leaving approximately 40 lbs of honey in the brood boxes to feed them through the winter. Along with those 40 lbs of honey, we also filled a frame feeder with sugar syrup to help supplement the bees’ feed source.
We felt that this would be enough feed to keep the colony healthy through the winter, now we needed to consider a way to keep them warm.
After doing a bit of reading, we asked other, more experienced bee keepers about their wintering plans. We found that very few bee keepers in our area move their bees indoors for the winter. Studies show that even when it is -40C outside, a bee colony will cluster around their queen when the temperature drops, and the middle of that cluster will be +35C, which is definitely warm enough to keep the colony healthy.
After buying Styrofoam insulation to cut to the exact specifications of the hive, winter snuck up on us quickly, and almost overnight the snow was falling. We had to improvise from our perfect plan to something that would work temporarily until we had time to cut our Styrofoam.
We wrapped the hive with silver bubble wrap insulation, cutting holes to keep the top and bottom entrances open. We have been told by other bee keepers that it is very important to keep the top entrance open to prevent the hive from getting too humid. Humidity is very dangerous to the health of a honeybee colony. Some of the reports we have read indicate that humidity is a bigger concern when wintering bees than temperature is.
Our intention was to leave the bubble wrap insulation on until this premature – October 18 – snowfall melted away, after which we would install our perfectly measured and cut insulation. As those of us from the Lloydminster area know, that premature October snow stayed, and is still here now, in April….with another blizzard in the forecast for this weekend!
The bubble wrap has worked beautifully. We have taken the ski-doo out to our bee site many times this winter, and we were always happy to see a nicely wrapped hive with one or two dead bees laying outside the entrance. A few dead bees outside the hive must mean live bees inside, because bees clean up their hive and will carry any dead bees out.
A week ago, April 7, we visited the bees, and found that they were flying in and out of the hive for cleansing flights. It was very strange to be sitting in the snow in negative temperatures, listening to the buzz of bees flying overhead!
The chickadees must have heard the buzzing also, and were acting like fuzzy little vultures sitting on top of the hive just waiting for a bee to fall into the snow, unable to make the flight back inside. When a bee would fall, they would swoop down and eat it! It was like watching ‘The Nature of Things’ only instead of lions and wildebeest it was chickadees and bumble bees.
We decided, after watching all of that ‘birds and bees’ action, that the hive appeared to be thriving. We would top up their sugar syrup feeder to make sure there would be enough food until the flowers start to bloom. Which at this rate might be July!
Here is what we found…
Bees which appear to be healthy and clustered in a swarm, presumably surrounding the queen.
The top of the swarm was clinging to the inside of the inner cover, but this colony has always done that. I’m not sure if it’s normal or not.
We quickly topped up their frame feeder and closed the hive again to avoid getting them too chilled.
Our very quick hive check let us know a few things
A. There are a lot of live bees in the hive.
B. The bees are active
C. They still have frames of capped honey in the hive that they haven’t eaten yet, so food supply isn’t a problem at this time And…
D. My bee suit over my snow suit makes me look fat.
We are very happy with the bees’ success over the winter, and we are hoping that the weather will soon start to warm up so that the flowers can bloom and we can move forward with year two of beekeeping!
“Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.” – Neale Donald Walsh