February 2021 Bee Update

Thanks for all the positive feedback on my recent posts about our dogs.  If you missed them, you can click here to read about how I live in my dogs’ house and here to read about our German shepherd.  We only have two dogs, but we have over 200,000 bees or at least we did going into winter.  We have six colonies spread over three locations.  This week was the first time in three months that the temperature was high enough for the bees to break their clusters and venture outside of the hives.  This is an anxious time for beekeepers because this is when we find out if our bees are still alive.

Doug and I had a very bad feeling about the bees this winter and neither one of us could explain why.  Our bees had low varroa mite counts this fall.  We made sure the bees had plenty of honey, and the hives that were a little low on honey were supplemented with feeding patties.  Maybe we had a sense of foreboding because the past year brought so much bad news that the death of all of our bees just seemed like the next logical thing to go wrong.  Doug and I are usually positive people.  We each can be pessimistic at times, but rarely are we both pessimistic at the same time.  One night while we sat at the table playing our evening game of cards (a new tradition started in the pandemic), we convinced ourselves that all of our bees were dead.   

We received nearly 1 foot of snow in just a few days. Carmen sits on top of the steel sewer cover because it is the only warm spot in the yard.

Yesterday I was able to check five of our six hives, and we have bees in all five of the hives I checked!  The sixth hive is on a neighboring farm, and it is the smallest hive and the easiest to replace if needed.  If the sixth hive has bees that will just be a bonus for us.  I will check it next week.

Many people have complained about cabin fever this year as we all have to face a harsh winter on top of covid restrictions.  Our small house has felt claustrophobic at times especially when the weather is too bad to leave the dogs outside.  Our situation is much better than that of our bees, who haven’t left their hives in three months. 

What does a bee do when it gets outside for the first time in months?  The first thing the bees do is to carry dead bees out of the hive.  Many bees die during winter, and their winged corpses litter the bottom of the hive and block the front opening.  The next thing the bees do is go on cleansing flights.  That’s the real term.  I didn’t just make that up to be polite.  Bees have to defecate just like people do, and they prefer to do this outside of their hive.  After the bees clear out the corpses, they poo.  

Bee carnage is typical in winter. As one of my friends says, “If you can’t handle death, you shouldn’t be a beekeeper.”

The next few months are still critical for the bees.  We will continue to monitor their food supplies.  We don’t want bees to starve in March and April.  We will watch for pollen in the weeks ahead.  I will sit and stare at the bees as they go in and out of the hive.  This is my own personal nerdy pollinator version of Netflix.  I study to see what is in the bees’ pollen baskets.  White pollen from maple trees is what we usually see first in our area.  The dandelions should be blooming in about three weeks.  Those yellow blooms are a good food source for the bees, and they make me feel more confident that the bees will survive winter.

Red arrow points to pollen basket full of off white pollen probably from a maple tree. This photo is from a previous year.

Beekeepers have a saying that you aren’t really a beekeeper if you can’t get your bees through the winter.  You are a “bee-haver” not a beekeeper if you must buy bees every year.  Keeping the bees alive becomes more challenging each year as habitat shrinks and disease pressure increases.  For now we are cautiously optimistic which should make the discussions during our evening games of cards a little brighter.    

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