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.