This week we said our winter goodnight to the bees. It’s the time of year we do our last inspections, add last minute supplements, and close up the hives for winter. The bees can still get out though, we just don’t go in. Winter is starving time for bees. It’s do or die survival style for the small number of bees left in the hive this time of year. The males (drones) are gone now. They have been exiled from the hive as a foodstore liability. The remaining girls must stay warm and outlive their food stores to bring the colony through into Spring.
And it’s not easy – the brood nest (think baby bee nursery) must be kept at 95 degrees, even when it’s 10 outside. Honeybees do this by maintaining a tight cluster inside the hive and vibrating their wing muscles to generate heat. The queen must be kept warm and fed. While she lays a few eggs to keep the population limping along, it’s a far cry from the thousands per week she will lay come spring. Bees operate about 6 weeks ahead of our seasonal calendar. So the colony must ramp up brood rearing in the dead of winter to be ready with a foraging army in spring. All of which is done during the most scarce of times.
We take comfort that we have done our part to give the colonies every chance of success. Our biggest contribution is self-restraint – we leave them their own honey to eat. (Not everyone does.) Given the heroic effort they make to collect their food, we humbly remove only the excess. They keep and benefit from the enzymes and nutrients of their own creation. This time of year we also offer homeopathic treatments and even emergency rations inside the hives should winter drag on and the pantry levels dwindle. There is little more we can do now. So we will prepare equipment for the spring baby boom we hope will come. Losses can be as high as 40-50% of honeybee colonies per year. It’s staggering, expensive, heartbreaking but reality we, and they, face.
As for us, we will use the winter downtime for other farm projects that have been on my list for too long … Chicken coop expansion! Pastured chicken tractor! Fruit tree planting! Hive box construction! Herb garden install! Paul is tired just watching my list making. And soon the mailbox will fill with the greatly anticipated seed catalogs. But in my fervor of planning during the cold season, I will anxiously watch the hive entrances and say a little prayer that winter will be kind to our bees.
Thanksgiving is late this year. That means as soon as the turkey and pies start baking people shift to list making – the checking it twice kind of list making. My strategy is to get it done early so I can enjoy the month of December and the festivities rather than negotiating the mall or, God forbid, Walmart.
Come join us tomorrow from 9am-3pm at Middle Creek High School’s Winter Wonders Craft Fair in Apex. We will have our cute gift bags available stuffed with local goodies for teachers, family members, scout leaders… basically anyone on your list. Everyone eats and will love the taste of home our local products provide. We have 2 gift bag sizes customizable with local honey, handmade soap, pure beeswax candles and more. These are especially handy to bring to out of town gatherings or as hostess gifts. Simplicity! It’s bagged, wrapped, done. Now you can sit back and untangle some lights.
The State Fair winner is… ok, not me. I was tickled pink that we earned some awards in several of our entered categories, but we didn’t win the whole shebang. The type-A in me must ask, why? Luckily, the judges provide their judging cards as feedback for your score. Good news: the bees are doing their job – we scored 100% on taste and color. Bad news: the beekeeper is the problem – we got ding-ed for inconsistent bottle filling and presence of wax and pollen. Actually none of this is bad news. The fact that I don’t nail a precise fill in each bottle doesn’t bother me – we hand-fill. There are going to be minor fluctuations. And as for wax and pollen, that’s a function of how little we filter our honey. It’s also what gives local honey the appeal to allergy sufferers wanting to mitigate their symptoms with all natural treatment. So even though our ribbons weren’t blue, we won some awards and learned a good bit about honey judging.
We also walked the other agricultural exhibits with a keener eye towards what we might like to incorporate at the farm. Did you see the grand champion black sheep? Seriously, cutest thing ever (although I did miss the pygmy goat costume contest.) In lieu of the poultry exhibits this year (due to avian flu concerns) the high school FFA groups had an impressive display of chicken coops behind Dorton Arena. I was genuinely tempted by one of them that had an integrated gutter/rain barrel system. Great ingenuity from the younger generation – thank you for the ideas. We will be using some of them!
I left with some professional affirmation that our bees have good taste. In retrospect I knew that, because I eat the stuff all the time. But accolades for the girls are nice too. I would hang the ribbons on their hives but they aren’t into recognition. The days are getting shorter and food sources fewer. Winter is a challenging time and they are focusing all their efforts on survival. We are helping out by offering homemade essential oil treats as we get ready to close the hives until spring. We have taken great care to make sure they have their own food, friends for warmth, and a draft-free house. What more does anyone need?