Tag Archives: winter bees

Beekeeper’s Nightmare

Finally, A Good Sleep

I didn’t realize that keeping bees could give me nightmares.  It was fine in the first two years, we fenced in the two hives we had.  Though in the second year skunks had taken some bees from the third (un-fenced) hive as snacks in early spring but the hive still survived.

Two out of the three hives survived last winter and one of the hives swarmed several times in late spring.  We managed to catch them all and have ended up going into this winter with five hives.  Aside from the original two hives, all new hives were unfenced.  And, this was the cause of my nightmare.

Skunks and raccoons will not bother us in summer when there is plenty of food around.  Autumn, however, is another story.  They will do anything to pack it in for winter including raiding our hives.  I found skunk’s calling cards in front of two of the hives but I didn’t have time to fence them in.  I woke up in the middle of the night having a nightmare about the critters.  The image of vicious skunks devouring my bees left and right, raccoons wrecking the hive’s entrance and chewing off the supers woke me up night after night.  Though it was only a nightmare, I could hardly wait for the morning to come so I could check on the hives.

The nightmares stopped after we fenced the hives in.

This year we used different a material to insulate the hives.  In previous years we used 2” foam board wrapped around the hives and covered the tops.  It worked quite well but was very difficult to manage.  This year we wrapped the hives with reflective insulation, which is much better to maneuver and leaves a much smaller gap for cold air to get in.  We didn’t have time to cover the top but the bees should be fine in the hive for a few nights of temperatures below 20º F.  Roofing and mouse guards will be the task on my next day off from work.

Beehives last winter, with two inches of foam board insulation.  They came out of the winter well
Beehives last winter, with two inches of foam board insulation. They came out of the winter well

Though the nightmares stopped, I’m still keeping my fingers crossed with this new insulation material.  It’s the type of material contractors use to insulate a house: bubble plastic with aluminum foil on both sides and much thinner than the foam board.  Seems like it’s going to be another bad winter.  We’re debating on putting another layer on as well as wrapping industrial grade black plastic on the outside for heat absorption.

This year's insulation using construction grade insulation wraparound
This year’s insulation using construction grade insulation wraparound

I’ll know if it worked well or not by next spring.  At this time I only know that it’s much easier to wrap a hive with this type of insulation material and the hive can be sealed off completely with just top and bottom entrances open.

One of the new hives captured from a swarm in spring
One of the new hives captured from a swarm in spring

Dead Hive

They Starved to Death

The honeybees were busy today, flying in and out with a lot of pollen.  I’m glad we live in a watershed area with so many trees blossoming at this time of year.  There are not many leaves to be seen but a lot of maples here are budding.  A large silver maple in the front yard just unfurled its petals as well.  Observing them bringing in pollen has reduced my concern for them not having enough protein to raise their young.  I try to keep honeybees the way nature intended.  I don’t use any chemical treatment of any kind.  The research I did early on made it clear that it’s possible to keep bees naturally and organically.

It was warm and sunny today so I opened the dead hive to look for the cause of death.  The whole hive was so light.  I could easily lift all three supers by myself and look at the screen bottom board.  There were very many dead bees at the bottom.  I decided to move the whole hive away from the other’s just in case there were any transmittable diseases.  Opening the supers up on the driveway one by one to inspect, there was no foul smell and no moth cocoons but all combs were empty.  Combs in the top super had dead bees in a lot of the cells.  Even the inner foam insulation showed signs of being chewed.  They were trying to find any food source to prolong their lives during the six long brutal months this winter but in the end they starved to death.

After seeing what caused one hive to die I felt an urgent need to feed the surviving ones.  I know they can find their own food most of the day now but a little help won’t hurt.  It was warm enough (62º F) for me to open the top and feed them with sugar syrup.  A gallon for each hive should be enough to give them a boost.  I hope I can open and inspect these hives soon so I can have some bearing of why they survived and the other one didn’t.

As much as I mourn the dead one, I’m glad that two out of three hives survived this last winter.  They are strong now and will produce a very strong generation of honeybees.  As Nietzsche put it…”That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.”

Dead bees on the bottom board
Dead bees on the bottom board
Comb with bees in the cells
Comb with bees in the cells
Up close on the other comb
Up close on the other comb


Feeding Bees in Winter

Mission Accomplished

It’s mid February and mounds of snow are piled up all over the place, the residue of blizzard ‘Nemo’.  I have no idea how the bees are doing inside the hive at this point.  After each snowstorm I make sure that snow or other debris doesn’t block the hive’s entrances, both upper and lower.  Aside from checking the entrances I also look for:

  • Dead bees.  Dead bees in front of the hive or on the snow nearby indicate that there are still bees, alive and well, in the hive.  I’ve seen a few of them after each snowfall. I’ve never been so happy to see dead bees until this winter. One day I even saw an undertaker bee taking a body out.
  • Varroa mites (Varroosis) Though I don’t treat my bees for Varroa mites, I check for it weekly  just to keep a record.  A corrugated foam sheet is inserted under the screen bottom board to make it easier to do the count.  Not many mites so far, actually way below the maximum allowed.  According to Beekeeper’s Handbook by Diana Sammataro & Alphonse Avitabile, more than 50 mites a day is considered high (amount of mites divided by amount of days the sheet was under the board)
  • Wax residue.  Tiny wax particles on the corrugated foam sheets under the bottom board is a sign that new cells were uncapped either for food or a new generation and there were some pale brown wax bits every time I checked.

That’s all I know from observation outside the hive.  It seems fine, but I don’t know if they will have enough food to last until they can forage again.

One blogger, mylatinnotebook, has recommended that I feed bees fondant.  Aside from leaving them a lot of honey, I also fed them a few gallons of sugar syrup before I closed the hive in autumn.  But, as a newbie, I am willing to follow all recommendations I get as long as it doesn’t involve feeding them chemicals. 

I made four packs of fondant over a week ago but the weather has been too cold to open the hive and feed the bees until today.  The hive shouldn’t be opened for feeding if the temperature is below 40°F, or with rain or high wind.  Today is 42°F, sunny with a little bit of wind so I cracked open the roof to peek in.

I took one pack of fondant out of the freezer and let it warm up a little bit.  It wouldn’t stay solid.  It softened to a thick syrup first and then started to stiffen up again.  I couldn’t put it directly on the frames so I put it on the winter cover and fold the wax paper under to make a border.  I checked the foam sheet 20 minutes later and saw some fondant on the sheet so I opened the hive again and put a plastic lid as a ring around the feeding hole to prevent more of it running out through the frames.

Opening the hive the second time, I found the bees were eating the dried fondant that dripped on the frame and some of them came up to eat on the inner cover.  There were also uncapped honey frames present.  I insulated the hive enough and the daytime temperature in the next couple of days will be around 40°F they should be able to come up to the inner cover.

Bees coming up to eat fondant dripping from the inner cover
Bees coming up to eat fondant dripping from the inner cover

They looked happy (as much as you can tell from a bee) and liked the fondant even though it may not have been up to ‘bee’ standards.  I’ll have to practice making it, maybe with a different recipe.

There is still a month or so of winter left here but the bees have survived through hurricane ‘Sandy’, blizzard ‘Nemo’, and single digit temperatures with wind factors below 0°F, so they most likely will pull through this winter.

Let’s see how they are when I feed them next time.

More bees coming up.  I know I'm imagining it, but it still looks like they're smiling.
More bees coming up. I know I’m imagining it, but it still looks like they’re smiling.