It is late January, and it is time to check in on the hives; see how things are going for the bees. The winter, to date, has been relatively mild; very little snow with many days above freeze with the exception of several days of -10 degrees F (-23 degrees C).
During the winter months, unlike the spring, summer and fall months where bears and errant children tend to be a hive’s major foes, the major foes of a hive are moisture (condensation), temperature (cold), and food (or lack there of). Moisture is most easily controlled through adequate ventilation – leaving an entrance open at the bottom of the hive (with a mouse guard in place) as well as having a top entrance of some sort usually allow for things to be well ventilated. Moisture plus cold are a certain death for a hive. It is very similar to a wet human in the cold – hypothermia sets in quickly followed by death.
We deal with cold by adding insulation to the mix. Our hives at the Ahrens’ Bee Yard are encased in a polystyrene tomb (with entrance holes). All of our hives at the location are back to back or side to side (we have eight hives at this location). Two hives deep by four hives wide, this rectangle is encased by two inches (51 mm) of polystyrene insulation on all sides (including underneath). in addition to giving the hives an extra R value of about 9, it acts as a fantastic wind and draft break.
Food is a long term planning item for the bees. Because they spend all spring and summer gathering for the fall and winter, under normal circumstances, they should have an adequate store of honey and pollen – if they were left to their own devices. However, we, the keepers, add another variable to the mix when we harvest the sweet goodness of honey. Luckily, we did not harvest honey from the Ahrens’ Bee Yard this past season. We wanted to establish the colonies in their hives and be able to start this coming season with fully drawn out comb with seasoned, over-wintered queens. If we had harvested, we would be concerned, going into February, with whether the bees had exhausted their food stores. This is why we perform winter checks — to supplement, when needed, the food stores of the hives.
Rolling into the Ahrens’ Bee Yard in the truck, it was apparent that they had received more snow than at our house thirty miles (48 km) to the south. Looking in the rearview mirror, I could see two paths cut through the eight inches (20 cm) of snow by the tires. We pulled up over the hill, and tucked up against the pines at the edge of the field was our polystyrene sarcophagus. Melissa helped with the initial snow removal from the top and disassembly of some of the panels, but she quickly made it back to the truck when it came time to break into the bee-chamber.
The first hive to check was my beekeeping partner’s hive. Upon pulling off the inner cover, the hive-scent hit my nose and the feisty Russian bees began to trickle up toward the surface. The sugary syrup in feed pail had crystalized — a quick slit of with my knife and the lid was freed. The lidless pail was returned and the hive buttoned back up.
The second hive to check was the Canadian bees. Upon removing the inner cover, I was greeted with emptiness. No hive smell, no hive sounds – just emptiness. I removed all but the bottom deep set of frames – empty. Just dead bees. There was very little honey in the frames, which made think of robbery by the other bees in the sarcophagus.
Hive three’s only special attribute was a dead mouse suspended face down in the remaining heavy syrup in the insulation/feed box. Hive four revealed an extremely strong, extremely feisty lot of bees. With the inner covered removed, I found an empty feed box a multitude of bees cleaning the remaining sugar crystals out. Removing the feed box, the hive foamed over with bees and the alarm pheromone of the bees, which smells a lot like bananas, wafted up in my nose. I worked quickly, and frequently puffed smoke at the hive to calm them. I replaced several empty honey box (“super”) frames with frames containing fondant.
The remaining hives were uneventful; no other dead hives, no other dead mice, and no other angry, banana-scented hives, just bees keeping busy in the depths of winter.