Bees in Winter

photo of bee hives covered with snow

Bee hives at the urban farm in Columbia, Missouri

Ten inches of snow covers the ground, with more snow expected in the next few days, and I am thinking about bees. We have not been down to our bee yard since last fall. Usually, we get at least one warm day during the winter when we can go check on the hives, but this year, once cold weather set in, it was here to stay. I would like to put my ear up against each hive and listen for the bees humming inside like a small engine, as thousands of bees fan their wings to warm the inside of the hive. Clustered together, with the queen at the very center of thousands of bees, on these cold days, the worker bees will be rotating in and out of the cluster; the entire cluster moving as a single being slowly across the frames of capped honey they put by during the summer. At the very center of the cluster, it will be close to seventy degrees, and mice may have crawled into the bottom of the hive for shelter.

The final entry in my notebook from 2010 was written on harvest day, September 11. According to my notes, it was 78 degrees when we headed down to the beeyard; the sky was blue, the sun was shining, and the bees were out flying that afternoon. After weeks of near 100 degree temperatures late in the summer, the creek was way down, and you could see the tree roots along the riparian corridor where high waters had cut a deep channel during years of heavy rain. The field grasses were tall, with deep burgundy seeds bending in the breeze. Numerous brightly colored butterflies—yellow, orange, white, black and blue—flitted among the small star-shaped asters blooming near the hives.

The notebook doesn’t say anything about the actual harvest, other than to note that we took off six full supers of honey that day. I remember the process going smoothly, the way Jim described it to me more than ten years ago, before I helped him with my first harvest. On warm sunny days, when the fume boards can heat up quickly, it is a relatively simple matter of removing the cover from the hive, replacing it with a lid lined with canvas that has been soaked with a smelly substance; waiting for the sun to heat the metal lid and the fumes to drive the bees further down into the hive, then removing the box of honey to the truck and placing a cover over it so the bees don’t move back in right away. Then you take the lid with the fume board and place it on the next box and repeat the process.

On cool or cloudy days, or days when the Bee Go has lost its potency, however, the process doesn’t go quite so smoothly, and we’ve had some of those harvests, as well. Harvest is also easier when all the large hive bodies are near the bottom of the hive and the smaller supers are stacked on top. A super filled with capped honey can weigh about fifty pounds; a hive body filled with honey can weigh about eighty pounds. My husband and I are not tall, so if the boxes are stacked too high, that also becomes an issue.

After taking off the six supers of honey last September, we would have driven straight home and stacked the boxes in our garage for extracting. Usually we harvest on one day and extract on the next day. Then, as soon as possible after extracting, usually one day that week after work or sometime the following weekend, we take the empty boxes back to the bee yard so the bees can clean the comb of any remaining honey. We generally don’t put the supers back on the hives at that point but stack them off to one side, so bees from each hive can get to the boxes and take the honey back to their own hives.

After the boxes have been cleaned out, we put moth crystals on sheets of newspaper in between each empty box to keep the wax moths out. We never know exactly when will be our last trip to the beeyard for the season, depending on the weather and how busy we get during the fall, but sometime after harvest and after the asters have bloomed, Jim usually checks each hive by lifting one edge to weigh how much honey the bees have stored and estimate whether it is enough to get them through the winter. If the hives seem too light, as they did in 2009, when the asters failed to bloom and the bees were unable to replenish their stores after we had robbed the hives, we will feed them heavy sugar syrup as often as we can throughout the winter, until the nectar starts coming on in the spring.

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