To The Bee Cave, Bee Boy!
Well, the weather has been above freezing and all of us just happened to be in town for a moment so Mr. Neil, Non Birding Bill, Fabulous Lorraine and myself decided that it was time to do a winter bee inspection to determine how many bees and supplies to order for this spring.
Since we would be digging about inside the hive to check the food stores the hives had left, we decided to go with our bee suits on. With his hat and bee suit, NBB almost looked more like seaman from the movie The Life Aquatic than a member of a team of award winning beekeepers.
We have two hives that we are over wintering. Above is the Kelli hive. She is three deep brood boxes, wrapped in insulation, with two moisture boards (stuff they use in your bathroom walls to absorb moisture), and some newspaper. You worry more about your hives getting wet in winter than you do the cold. The bees can take the cold, but moisture in a hive just messes everything up. Kitty is two boxes without insulation and just newspaper for moisture. We were running a couple of experiments: for overwintering, do we want to do three boxes instead of two and do we want to use insulation or not. There are arguments for both. It's possible for bees to survive with only two boxes--fewer places to go and therefore the cluster won't be at risk of being too far from food. Insulation on the hive could fool the bees into thinking it's warmer outside than it really is and they fly out too soon and die.
Before we opened them, I put my ear up to each hive to see if I could hear them buzzing. I could! Kitty was not as loud as Kelli, but both hives were totally alive and had survived the harsh January temperatures so far! After we opened the Kelli hive, I held up my camera to the open frames so you could hear a hive buzzing in winter (you can see the green Kitty hive in the background):
We didn't dig too deep in Kelli, she was loud, just glancing at the top frames, she had plenty of food, and if we have learned anything, it's that the more you leave your bees alone to just bee, the better off they are.
We did make sure that bother bottom and top entrances were open for good ventilation. She was incredibly dry. Even her news paper was bone dry. The moisture board was working well and there weren't too many dead bees at the entrance and we could see a couple come in and out. The three box system, with insulation, and the moisture boards appeared to be working very, very well.
Kitty was a different story. She was alive, but her cluster was very small. If you look between NBB and Mr. Neil in the above photo, you can see part of it. Mr. Neil is holding a spray bottle, he sprayed some homemade bee nectar around them and we made sure that the frames closest to them were full of food, so if the cluster ran out of food where they were, they would not need to go far.
The cluster of bees stays together to stay warm. If it gets so cold that they cannot move far and they have eaten all the nearby food, they may starve before they can move to where there is food in the hive. As we moved the frames around, the hive was incredibly wet.
Even the newspaper on top was wet. There were thousands of dead bees on the inside. We took out a bunch of the dead wet bees. We have some concerns about this hive. Her cluster is small. If the rest of the winter is mild, she should survive. If we get some more subzero days, we're afraid that the remaining cluster of bees is so small it won't be able to stay warm enough. There's not much more we can do at this point.
So, I think two things to take from this are: 1. That white moisture absorbing material used for bathroom walls helps to keep a wintering hive dry. 2. That a two brood box hive probably could survive, but I don't know if we would do it again without insulation. We want to have six hives going this summer and we think what is going to happen is that we will split the healthy Kelli hive into two hives and that Kitty will most likely die and we will need to restart her.
Some good, some bad with the hive inspection, but it was fun to get a taste of our beekeeping operation. I really do miss it. I love birding and I love travel, but I think beekeeping is one of the coolest things you can ever try in life. It's more fun than I ever realized.
After we were finished we had to put the hives back together and put the bricks back on to make sure a strong winter wind didn't knock their covers off...and I can never resist working a Father Ted reference: