I’m sure most of you have noticed, but we have a lot of snow still! It’s still knee deep out in the beeyard. Not only that, but the weather hasn’t warmed up enough for the bees to fly. The willows have been out for a week now, but the weather hasn’t been warm enough for the bees to be collecting the willow pollen yet. We try to do our beekeeping with as few inputs as possible, in other words, we don’t usually supplement our bees with pollen replacements and sugar syrup. However, the winter has been so long and the weather is looking so drab for the next while that I’m seriously considering it.
This time of year it’s really easy to lose hives. Individual bees raised in the fall have been alive all winter, and that’s a long time for an individual bee to live (winter bees tend to live around seven months; summer bees live for only a few weeks). Starting around now, the winter bees need to be raising lots of young ones to replace themselves. To do that they need pollen, which is what the larva are fed. Hopefully they packed enough away in the fall, and hopefully events coincide in the spring so they are able to fly out and collect willow pollen. A lot of beekeepers feed pollen substitutes around now to help them raise brood, but the best pollen they can get is the fresh stuff off the willow bushes. So that’s why the weather needs to be nice! If they don’t have pollen, they can’t raise much brood. Without raising enough brood right now, the hive can dwindle away as all the bees that hatched in the fall die of old age.
In addition, to stay alive bees need to eat honey or sugar syrup. We feed them lots of sugar syrup in the fall and that needs to last them all winter and into the spring, until a new nectar flow starts. (We feed them sugar syrup because sometimes bees don’t overwinter very well on honey- it can mess with their digestive tracts, and during long periods of confinement during our cold winters, we don’t want them having digestive tract issues. Most beekeepers feed sugar syrup because bees can digest it with fewer waste products so they don’t need to defecate as often.) A hive in the fall that’s full of sugar syrup can weigh around 120lbs or more. That’s how much food a hive will go through over the course of the winter and if they run out the bees simply starve to death. By this time of year, regardless of how much we fed them in the fall, they’re starting to get low. I have my fingers crossed my bees have enough food to get them through until the weather warms up.
Which brings me to why it’s so important that we be breeding our own bees. Bees that are well adapted to our climate tend to overwinter in smaller clusters and then build up their population very quickly in the spring. This means that in long winters such as this one, they have a better chance of making it because there haven’t been as many bees to feed all winter long. They are less likely to have run out of food by now because their population was smaller all winter. The best way to get locally adapted bee stock is to raise your own queens for a few years. Breed from the hives that have made it through the winter and over time you’ll naturally end up with bees that do well surviving our winters.
I’ll keep you posted on how my hives do!