From the Hive: Weathering Winter Beekeeping

Of my fifteen hives, only one is located at my house, so the wonderings of how my remaining hives are doing are constantly ringing in my ears and on my mind especially through winter evenings.
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Photo of bees on white sugar provided by Sarah Meyer

By Sarah Meyer, Beekeeper and Owner of Worker’s Ransom Honey

Of my fifteen hives, only one is located at my house, so the wonderings of how my remaining hives are doing are constantly ringing in my ears and on my mind especially through winter evenings. My home hive is nestled in a nook of my house to protect it from the bustling wind and weathering of frigid nights. Facing east to catch the cast of the morning sun, I wrap my hives in black tar paper to attract the warm solar rays of the winter sky. It’s out my bedroom window that I peek through the blinds each morning to see if, or how much, it snowed. My glance always rests on my hive, sending good wishes, hope, and prayers that my bees are still alive and thriving. It is within the hive boxes that the colony holds that same hope and endurance into Spring.

Within the hive, preparations for winter were made by the queen in part by laying her winter bees, also known as diutinus bees. They are raised to live longer, months rather than weeks, and to work harder toward survival through the cold days and nights of the season. As winter approaches and temperatures seep into the 50s, honeybees cluster, forming into a ball-like huddle, around their queen to ensure she and her brood are cared for and warm. 

Consuming honey within the hive for energy, the cluster tightens as the air temperature drops and expands as the air temperature rises, adjusting air flow and conditions within the hive to maintain the brood at 92-95 degrees Fahrenheit within the cluster. That warmth, which is generated by the bees quivering their wings and muscles, may lower to 68 degrees Fahrenheit if the cluster is not maintaining brood. As they tire, the bees at the center of the cluster rotate with the bees at the outer edge. During warmer periods, the entire cluster shifts to new areas of the hive box that contain additional food stores. All of these winter efforts are why beekeepers do not typically describe their hives as hibernating through winter. They are alive, active, and working throughout the season. For each of my hives, I continuously pray that the cluster has enough bees remaining to keep the queen warm enough and that the cluster can migrate to stored honey in time before temperatures drop and the cluster huddles tight again. 

If you follow my Facebook or Instagram thread, I recently shared videos of two winter beekeeping experiences I have had this year. On more mild winter days, bees will exit the hive, typically from the upper hive entrance because it is the warmest route to take out, for a cleansing flight. Bees do not typically defecate within the hive, so they make a quick pit stop and quickly loop back to join her sisters. Although, there are times when she may tire quickly or get too cold to return to the hive. Yesterday,I revived a cold, exhausted, worker bee that I found motionless on my front porch. I warmed her up in my kitchen and fed her a drop of honey and water to later bring her back to the hive to join her cluster. Maybe this level of compassion is extreme, but to me, saving one bee is as important as to saving one hive. 

The earlier video wasn’t as much of a “feel good” experience, as the second, but still an all too familiar reality of winter beekeeping—what beekeepers refer to as deadouts. Painful to observe and discover, honeybee colonies die throughout winter for various reasons and explanations, such as queen strength, colony health, weather, starvation, ventilation, and the state of the hive going into winter. My hive checks over winter are typical to verify hive status and to feed my bees if needed. With low temps, it isn’t in the best interest of the bees to open up a hive for inspection, for it would break their resinous propolis weatherseal and expose the cluster to the cold. Because of this, verifying that the hive is alive isn’t always easy, so some beekeepers use a stethoscope or a thermal camera to see or hear signs of life. Putting an ear up to the hive to listen for the hum of the cluster or looking down into the hive through the inner cover hole can often reveal enough signs of life to bring instant relief to the beekeeper! Silence is the saddest part, and so unfolds the beekeeper’s grieving process.

I know former beekeepers that gave up keeping hives because the stress and sleepless winter nights worrying about their hives was too much to bear and led to anxiety and depression. I don’t deny I’ve had those same feelings as the wind is howling, rain falls rather than snow, and there is nothing more I can really do as a beekeeper until temperatures warm. As daylight extends our days into spring, my winter worries and grief are comforted by the sight of honey bees gathering outside of the sun-warmed hive entrance. From my bedroom window I begin to see young bees taking their first orientation flights and foragers, anxious to stretch their wings, hoarding maple, pussy willow, and dandelion nectar and pollen. Hope is restored! And the apiary, and beekeeper, recovers!

Sarah A. Meyer is the beekeeper and owner of Worker’s Ransom Honey based in Geneva. She set up her first hive in 2014 and now sells honey from bees pollinating the Finger Lakes region. You can learn more about Worker’s Ransom Honey by reading about Sarah’s beekeeping adventures shared in her monthly From the Hive column and on social media @workersransom on Facebook and @workersransomhoney on Instagram. You can find Worker’s Ransom products at five retail locations in the Geneva area and a few of them offer online ordering and gift baskets. These include the Finger Lakes Welcome Center in Geneva, Bostrom Farms in Stanley, Monaco’s Coffee in Geneva, FLX Goods in Geneva, and Red Jacket Orchards Farmstore in Geneva. Contact Sarah via email at workersransom@gmail.com.

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