Tuesday, May 24, 2011

A Little Bee Told Me

With so much going on lately, I've been remiss in keeping you up on how the bees are doing.  A story on NPR this morning on Why Honeybees Are Better Politicians than Humans reminded me. Do listen to/read the story if you haven't already. It features an interview with Thomas Seeley, author of the very intriguing book, Honeybee Democracy.

The good news is that my one hive from last year survived the winter. I didn't have high hopes for it given that we had another really bad winter with many lengthy cold snaps of single-digit weather. Still, I had deliberately avoided taking any honey from the hive last year to make sure that they would have plenty to get through the winter. They didn't have a lot anyway late in the summer but a spectacular abundance of late-blooming aster in the autumn allowed them to collect a crazy amount of nectar for that time of year (aster is great for bees but doesn't make nice honey for people, in case you're wondering why you don't see that alongside the clover, wildflower, and orange-blossom honey in the store).

Lots of honey and pollen (the carbs and protein, respectively, of the bee diet) are no guarantee of winter success as the previous year showed. Two of the three hives that year starved despite having food. They were so cold, the bees couldn't move from their cluster to get to the food and those that tried, died, leaving even fewer bees to keep the cluster warm. Eventually, the cluster got too small and froze in place. So depressing to find a frozen cluster in the spring with ample honey nearby. So, this past winter, I put lots of straw bales around my hive to serve as a windbreak and offer the bees a bit of assistance in staying warm.

I had my first indication that it was working on one unusually warm December day. I thought it was just in the 40s but I looked up from my computer and saw one of my honeybees at the window. That's a sure sign that the temperature is above 50 degrees. I raced outside and discovered that not only was it too lovely a day to stay inside but at least some of the bees were still alive. Several of them came to check me out as I went on my rounds that day. It's not unusual for them to come find me during the winter if I'm outside and it's warm enough for them to be out. I usually assume they're looking for food. I put out a little sugar water for them and watched a few of the bees check it out but at the end of the day it was mostly still there. I took that as a sign that they had plenty of honey in the hive and didn't need my charity. Still lots of winter to get through at that point but get through it they did.

By the time late winter warmed up enough to check up on the hive, it was clear that they had survived. It wasn't the strongest colony but they still had enough honey left and the foragers were finding pollen long before I could see anything blooming.

I have since added one new colony (I bought a nuc from a local apiary), so I have a bit more flexibility. If one colony is weak, I can combine it with the other into one hive. It's also easier to gauge the health of a colony when I have another for comparison. The tulip poplar trees have just finished blooming and so the biggest nectar flow of the year has come to an end. I hope to be able to peek into both hives later this week and see how much the girls were able to sock away.

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