Sunday, January 8, 2012

Bee Hive Update

As winter begins, the short, wet, cold days are hard on bees and ours are no exception. So it is with pleasure that we see some honey in the combs, signs that our pollen substitute is being accepted, a queen who is still active and surrounded by workers, and a notable absence of dead bees inside the hive.

What do each of these observations tell us?

Honey storage has a lot to do with how well the bees can get through the cold months. With temperatures cold enough to inhibit flight, bees cannot go foraging for nectar – even if there were flowers out at this time of year. Bees that have honey stored in their hive stand a much better chance of making it till spring. Our bees do not appear to have enough honey stored to survive until April flowers. However, the bees are still getting to the jar of sugar water just outside the hive. This means they can replenish their stock - and with luck and good weather - keep enough food to start generating new workers. One new trick we have used with our sugar water this year is flavoring it with mint extract. Mint is said to be a feeding stimulant, and our experience seems to confirm this.

Bee larvae, AKA baby bees, have much higher protein needs than adult workers. This protein comes from pollen. Unfortunately, our hive was completely out of pollen by early December. While we have seen success placing a sugar feeder outside, we never had much luck getting the bees to accept substitute pollen. This year, we tried pushing the pollen directly into the hive area, through the screen on one of their ventilation holes. Pollen substitute is never as well accepted as the real thing, but the bees do seem to be taking it up. Once the colony starts raising workers in spring, this may be a critical factor in whether they are able to rear enough young to replace the current workers.

As expected, the colony is taking a break from rearing workers. The queen takes several weeks off around the solstice, before gradually building up her egg production once again. This makes sense to the hive. In winter, raising extra bees is simply creating more mouths to feed. In spring, it is creating a new work force, able to go out and gather food once the flowers start blooming. Seeing our queen look active and fit gives us every reason to expect that her egg production should kick in shortly. We will be watching closely for this to happen.

The absence of dead bees may seem like a fairly obvious sign of a healthy colony. But in fact, there are some nuances to this, because we know that there are bees in the colony that have died. The population has been slowly declining from November until now. Bees live short lives – from 21 days in the height of summer, to a few months during the less active winter months. So over time, it is natural to expect the colony to shrink if the queen is not laying new eggs.

In a badly functioning colony, a bee that died inside the hive would stay there. In a healthy hive, another worker promptly remove the dead bee, so that her body would not cause health problems for other bees. Therefore, a lack of dead bees doesn’t mean that bees aren’t dying.

As our bees are gathering food for energy and for building up a new workforce with their healthy looking queen, we have high hopes for their success this spring. Of course we temper our hopes with caution. Beekeeping is a challenging activity, and many well-tended hives fail each year. But if we do have success, we will have learned several useful techniques for keeping our small hive healthy in the future.

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