After a week of Arctic blast temperature here, we have a balmy 60°F temperature this morning though raining. The rain will continue for the rest of the day and is expected to stop by Saturday morning. But 60 degrees Fahrenheit is high enough for the honeybees to come out of their hives and start cleaning themselves. This weekend the temperature is predicted to drop below freezing again. After I looked at the thermometer on the patio, I promptly took an umbrella and cellphone out to the garden. What I saw really made my morning.
We’re so happy to see them pull through a brutally cold, -5°F some nights, and uneven temperatures throughout. If they pull through this winter, the next generation will be more adaptable to the climate in our neighborhood. My concern is hive 3, the smallest one. There were a lot of dead bees in front of the hive when I checked on them the first time this winter.
My consolation is that they have to have live ones to carry the dead out. Even this morning, there are fresh dead bees on the landing. I have hope for them.
At least two more months before spring comes, I hope they have enough food to last until then. Heavy feeding since late summer should help. In the meantime, the squirrels are making a lot of pockmarks in the lawn, digging up crocuses that we planted for the bees.
Sunday was a record breaker for high temperatures in New York. With 67º F in Central Park, it breaks a high temperature record set back in 1923. Where we live the temperature was only slightly over 60º F and it was warm enough for the honeybees to come out of their hives, cleaning themselves and looking for food. Daytime temperatures will stay above 50º F for the next couple of days and they will come to forage though there are hardly any flowers left for them this late in the season.
We have insulated all hives for the winter so opening the top to feed them is not an option. We would have to remove the tape, foam, and inner insulation in order to put the feeder in. A front feeder is not an option either because we would have to crack open the entrance to slide it in. Anything we open forces the bees to spend more energy in sealing them again with propolis. So I put the feeder out in the open and let them take whatever they can back to their hives.
The advantage of feeding them this way, aside from not having to open the hives, is that they tend to clean themselves carefully afterward. The surface they are walking on is coated with sugar syrup and dry sugar particles that stick to their legs, body and wings. After taking some sugar syrup, they will land on any dry surface near by, myself included, and clean themselves before flying off to their hives. It’s not only to get sugar off their body, also get mites, if any, off themselves as well.
The disadvantage of this ‘communal’ feeding is that if there is a disease around it would easily spread from hive to hive. As far as I know, there is no one keeping bees within a few miles but I’m keeping my fingers crossed.
I took the opportunity to do a mite count. There were hardly any mites on the corrugated sheet with printed grid that I inserted under the screen bottom board. I keep the sheet on from late autumn to spring, not just for mite counting, but to keep other insects from getting in under the hive and to help keep warm air in. I think they can use all the help they can get to keep them going through the deep freeze of winter.
Finished checking for mites, cleaned the corrugated sheet and smeared olive oil on it before inserting it back under each hive. Cleaned birdbaths, added clean water, not just for the birds but the bees drink it too especially when the syrup turns to tiny sugar particles.
Thus ends my record breaking mid-December day chores. After all, the bees are my family and family always looks after one another.
Today was a perfect day. The temperature reached 60ºF, sunny and no wind. I was lucky to be home and used the opportunity to clean up part of the garden. I don’t worry much about the plants since I know that most of them are either native or very cold-hardy. What I’ve been anxious about is the honey bees.
Most information I came across agreed that the Italian honey bees don’t do well in a very cold climate. Last winter was exceptionally cold throughout the US and the North, where I live, the temperature dipped down to -4ºF at one point. Add a few feet of snow and a wind chill factor and it was the coldest winter that I can recall. I held my breath for the bees since there was nothing I could do but wait. Through the whole winter, every time the temperature rose above 50ºF, I would go out to see whether there were any dead bees in front of the hives. If there were, that meant there were still live bees inside to carry the dead out. It’s sad to see but good to feel seeing dead bees because it’s the only sign of life I can count on when I can’t open the hive.
I know today is a perfect day to determine whether they are dead or alive. By 1 pm, the temperature rose to 55ºF, the bees came out in droves from the first hive. They started with their cleansing flight and some began to take their dead comrades out. Then I saw something that made me happier…some of them were bringing back pollen! I have no idea where they were getting pollen from. Trees around here are still bare, only Maples have started to bud. I hope they didn’t raid pollen from porch flowers around the neighborhood. From what I know, flowers from big-box stores are loaded with pesticide. I don’t want them to end up dead after they pulled through such a tough winter.
Then the third hive, the smallest one, appeared. I didn’t expect them to survive as they were the weakest with the least honey in storage. But they did. The majority of them seemed to like using the top entrance. The ones that came back with pollen had difficulty climbing up to the entrance so I put a piece of broken clay pot in as a ramp.
The second hive seems to be gone. Nothing stirred and nothing I can do about it now. I will open it up on my next day off from work. I’ll leave the foam insulation on the surviving hives until the temperature has stabilized. I’ll leave some sugar water hanging by the patio for them, far enough from both hives so they won’t be robbed. I’ll let them do what they do best. I’ll let them be bees.
I didn’t expect to see our honey bees until sometime in March when the temperature is a little warmer. But to my surprise, the temperature yesterday shot up to almost 70º F. It doesn’t matter whether there is snow on the ground or not if the temperature is above 50º F the honey bees will come out to clean themselves. They were out in droves yesterday despite it being a cloudy day. It was a relief to me to see the bees from all three hives come out for a warmth break. I wasn’t sure about their condition when the temperature dropped to single digits a couple of weeks ago. Even though we put thick insulation around them, I really don’t know how much cold they can bear.
I have different concerns for each hive since I insulated them for winter: the first one seemed to have more dead bees in front of the hive than the other two, the second one didn’t seem to have much activity, and the third, the smallest hive, may not have enough bees to survive the winter.
Yesterday brought me some relief though. The first hive, despite a lot of dead bees in front of the hive, had even more bees being dragged out. We reasoned that the hive was over-populated to begin with therefore more of them will die out. There have to be a lot of healthy live bees to do the undertaker jobs and yesterday a lot of them did just that…dragging and flying more of the dead out.
The second hive with a lesser population had a busy day as well. There were a few dead bees in front of the hive but there were many bees doing cleaning flights and gathering on the landing board. This is the hive that had been robbed left and right in autumn but it looks like they are managing to hang on.
The third one is the smallest hive and the latest to come to our garden. I did my best to feed them but I wasn’t sure it was enough. During my last inspection before winterizing them, I didn’t see much honey storage or bee population compared to the first two hives. But in the warmth they were busy as well. I’m very happy to see them flying in and out and hope that they will manage until spring. This third hive is the fiercest in defending their home so their toughness may see them through to spring.
The first two hives are fenced in since we have both raccoon and skunk in the area. We didn’t have time to fence the third one so it’s almost an experiment to see if it’s raided by the raccoons or skunks. If not, I would prefer to remove the fence from the first two as well.
Instead of using a mouse guard, I reduced the entrance to only one inch wide. I think it’s harder for mice to get in since the hive is over a foot above ground as well as the small entrance. A smaller entrance in winter also keeps the hive warmer but it causes congestion when the bees want to rush in and out en-masse during their cleaning flights.
I noted that the bees first took out their dead, then started their cleaning flights. Maybe their priority was to clear a path inside the hive first for a better traffic flow.
There were many dead bees in front of the first hive but there were many more flying in and out yesterday. I won’t know until next spring whether the hive has survived or not. I hope this is due to over-population as I counted very few mites last fall or yesterday either and this is the hive that stored the most honey when I last inspected them.
Note: A little good news about honeybees, at least in Europe, in the New York Times on Wednesday 12/18. The article “European Agency Warns of Risk to Human in Pesticides Ties to Bee Deaths” reported that the European food regulators recommended the European Commission to further restrict the use of pesticide neonicotinoids. Hopefully, we can grow food without harming everything in the process… including ourselves.