Beekeeping in Winter. With your Fingers Crossed.
Beekeeping in Winter doesn't involve a lot of activity on the part of the Beekeeper. But, as we are discovering, it does involve a lot of wishing for Spring and hoping for the best.
We started keeping bees last year, so this is our first winter. It might be that, by the time you read this, we will know that our honey bees survived. But as I write, we don’t have a clue how they’re coping in this cold spell.
Below is an image of one of our hives on a summery day, when you can see them happily coming and going. But no beekeeper truly knows whether their bees are thriving or barely surviving at this time of year, because it’s too cold to open up the hive and take a look. This is a new thing for us, and it's a bit nerve wracking.
What do Honey Bees do in Winter?
Honey bees don’t hibernate. They remain active inside the hive and only leave briefly on the occasional warm day. I don't know about where you live, but we have had precious few warm days lately and there's some way to go yet before Spring appears. The ladies (for there will be no male drones in there at the moment, only female bees and their queen) have hopefully been huddling closely together in a cluster, keeping their queen warm.
As the outside temperature goes up and down, so the cluster size will get larger or smaller to adjust. It’s too cold for the honey bees to go and forage, and there are no reliable sources of pollen and nectar outside for them to eat anyway. Bees make honey all summer long so they have supplies for the winter. So our bees will hopefully have been eating their honey.
To access their honey stores, the cluster will move around the hive as a group when the temperature rises. If it gets warm enough, some might break away from the main group to access a new area of honey, re-joining the other bees when it gets cold again. If things are going really well, they may even be raising young bees.
What can go wrong?
Prolonged cold winters are fraught with risk if you’re a honey bee. If some bees break away from the main group and then it gets cold before they re-join them again, the ones that broke away will most likely die. If the cold spells go on for too long and the bees can’t get out to have a cleansing flight, disease can form inside the hive which can wipe out the colony.
If the hive stays damp for long periods, this is more likely to kill the bees than the cold temperatures will. We left much more honey than we took from our hives last year. We probably overdid it actually. We left more than other people did because we really didn't want to mess things up. So in theory, the bees have plenty of stores and shouldn’t run out. But if winter drags on and they can’t get outside to forage, the honey will run out. And if the bees simply can’t move the cluster to another part of the hive where honey is stored because it’s too cold for too long, the bees can starve to death even though there’s plenty of food inches away.
Jennifer (aka The Wayward Bee)'s approach was more in keeping with how we imagined ourselves keeping bees. Amongst other things, it meant less intervention than some other methods unless absolutely necessary, and we left them masses of their own honey for the winter. But, as I said above, plenty of stores is by no means a guarantee of the bees' survival.
We ended up with two hives by the end of the season. One hive (Gwyneth) contained a large swarm from a crabapple tree. The other (Molly) contained a smaller swarm from a neighbour's garden. Initially I thought the large swarm had more chance of survival than the small one. Which in many ways is true. But having spoken to lots of experienced beekeepers, it doesn't necessarily follow that a bigger colony at the end of summer has more chance of getting through a winter than a small one does.
We also opted for polyhives because, in theory, they have better insulation properties than wooden ones. But again, who knows? I can confirm that standing outside two hives in winter staring at them gives little indication of what's happening inside.
So there’s a lot for us to think about, but not much we can do but wait. And hope, with our fingers tightly crossed, that our bees have survived the winter.
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