The Beekeeper’s Blog: The Long Road From Harvest to Hibernation

Getting the Honey Gifts Organized

Hello from the frozen North! Well, maybe not, but it seems like it.

I thought that now is a good time to provide an update on my bees. I’m sure you’re wondering about them in this frigid weather and are curious about what is going on with them. Rest assured, you needn’t worry about the queens. When it gets cold like this, the other bees form clusters around the queens and don’t move around in the hives that much. From what I hear, bees on the inside of the cluster vibrate their wings to generate heat while the outer layer bees stay still and provide insulation. The bees switch off which ones are in the inner area of the cluster and which are in the outer area, so that none of them stays in either the colder or warmer area for long. This arrangement allows the inner cluster temperature to range from 81 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit. During a spell like this, when the bees have been clustered around the queen, and then they get a warm day, at least 54 or 55 degrees, they will take a “cleansing flight,” which is necessary since they do not poop or pee inside their hive and they don’t break out of their cluster formation to go outside the hive either.

Beyond the cold weather, let me fill you in on other stuff that has been going on since I last wrote of my bees, when I had just finished the honey harvest. The harvest was lots of work, and it took my family days to put bee equipment away, get bees out of our house, and bring the stickiness back to a tolerable level. I have been filling jars ever since, and our efforts paid off when I had honey gifts to give at the holidays. Although the bee chores are now minimal, I did complete some behind-the-scenes activities with my bees to prepare them for the winter.

Liquid Gold dispensed into containers
All the hard work paying off with honey gifts

One of the first tasks after the harvest was to wrap the super boxes filled with empty honeycomb shells and honey residue into large trash boxes, and store them in my basement. For purposes like this, I sure wish that we had a garage, but I digress. I put little plates of mothballs between the boxes with spacer bars. My fear was that moths, if they hadn’t already laid eggs in the boxes while they were outside, would lay eggs while they are stored in my basement. Then, the boxes would be trashed, and we would have moth problems in our house for the rest of our lives. One plus to this cold weather was that I could freeze the hive boxes to help ensure that any moths were gone. Before our family recently went to DC, I put all 6 of the hive boxes into PK’s car outside while we took off on our little 3-day vacation, which was the perfect amount of time to kill any moth, egg, or larvae that was in the boxes. I have just carried them back into the house where I resealed the bags and reapplied the moth ball arrangement to the outside of the boxes. I called this Operation Moth Ball Quarantine.

Freezing some bee boxes during the cold temperatures to kill any potential pests.

Another post-harvest task was for PK and me to check my bees thoroughly one last time in the fall. First, we located the queen in each hive by actually spotting her or by looking for signs of her presence, such as lots of capped brood and larvae. Unfortunately, my eyes are not sharp enough to look for her eggs, which would be obvious evidence of her presence. Both queens had moved their way upwards in the two hive boxes. Therefore, we flipped the boxes, putting Queens Beyonce and Benedetta at the bottoms of their hives, so they could start working their way up again.

Second, we also checked for varroa mites, one of the many threats to bees in our world today. To check we perform the sugar shake test.  With this test, we collected half a cup of bees from a frame with brood on it, put them in a jar with some powdered sugar, and capped them with a screen top; then we twirled the bees around to cover the with the powdered sugar and let them settle for a minute. It’s a pretty straightforward process, Then, we shook the sugar through the screen, which totally pisses off the bees, collecting the sugar on a white surface. Finally, we dissolved the sugar on the surface by pouring water over the heap of sugar, making it possible to count the varroa mites that have fallen from the bees’ torsos. Based on the number of mites per bees that were shaken, we determined whether we needed to treat our hives. Only one hive out of our two needed treatment.

PK shaking up the bees in the powdered sugar to knock off the varroa mites and count them in a somewhat scientific fashion

My treatment consists of using strips of brown slime known to beekeepers as hop guard. We hung about 2-3 strips spread evenly over the frames of each hive body. It is a natural food grade product coming from hop amino acids. I am still determining the efficacy of this treatment, but I was turned off by some of the other chemical types of treatments such as oxalic acid that require gloves, goggles to handle the crystals, and a warm day to vaporize the chemicals. I haven’t treated my bees most years in the past, but I have also not had any bees survive the winter. For those of you concerned, the half cup of bees gathered during the mite count was returned to the top frames of the hive, and the colony licked their buddies clean and hive life resumed.

Another item on our winter preparation list was to feed the bees to replace a lot of that liquid gold that was just “ripped” from them and to get their girls’ food stores up for the cold weather, when there are no food sources around. Beekeepers have different ways to do this, but I happen to have a top feeder, which is a box that I put on top of the hive and fill with a thick winter syrup of sugar water. The bees access the food from inside of the hive, and I can access the feeder from outside of the hive by pouring the syrup into the top of the feeder, even while wearing my nightgown. Perhaps TMI, but I tend to feed at night when the bees are settling in, and I don’t need all of the white bee garb and smoke to perform this activity. Nevertheless, this time, I did not spend a lot of time feeding my bees sugar water. I left each hive a super box full of honey that I hadn’t harvested since it was not capped at the time. By the time fall was completed, the honey was capped by the bees.

For additional winter preparation, I also threw some insulation around the hives. I honestly am not sure this helps a heckuva lot with the current temperatures, but there’s no harm to come from it. One more, totally new thing that I also did this year was to insulate the top of the hives with insulation board, not just loose insulation, and create a small hole at the top. Apparently, when the bees create their warming clusters, the heat they generate rises to the top of the hives and condensation forms. The principles behind the insulation board and hole arrangement are to allow the bees access to the outside, to keep the hive ventilated, and to prevent large concentrations of condensation from dripping and taking out the bee colonies below. Instead, it will roll down the outer edges of the hive.

Gift wrapping the hives in insulation may help the bees in the cold temperatures
Insulation boards wrapped in plastic to keep condensation off of the ceiling of the hive

Just prior to this cold spell, we had a warm 60-degree day and I pulled up into my driveway to see the busy bees flying all around my one hive near the road, doing a cleansing flight, pooping and peeing. It was a beautiful sight. I immediately rushed to my other hive deep in the woods, and it was the same beautiful sight. I peeked into the tops of both hives and saw that the honey stores were still looking good. However, I did make a patty of fondant (hardened sugar used for icing on Cake Boss cakes) and tossed it into the top of the first hive that seemed more populated.

Above video is from a balmy December 19, 2017.

Now, I sit and think about my bees and pray for their full bladders and their survival as I study and see no end in sight for this Arctic weather. Maybe I can convince a bunch of my friends to come over and create a warming cluster around me!

Janice Fisher is a writer, physical therapist, and beekeeper from Annapolis.

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