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Do Bees Hibernate?

January 31, 2016 (Sunday)

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Temperatures got up to a whopping 54 degrees today!  After weeks of freezing temperatures and a 3ft snowfall, I finally had the chance to check on my girls and restock their candy supply. 54 degrees is still somewhat cold for the bees.  I certainly wouldn’t start pulling out frames and breaking apart boxes until the temps are at least in the 60’s.  Below 50 degrees, the bees begin to cluster.  Bees need to cluster in the cold because that’s how they generate heat and stay warm.

What Bees Do During the Wintertime

People often ask me if the bees are hibernating.  Well, bees don’t really hibernate.  Yes, they collect food to prepare for the winter, and yes, they stay in their hives during temperatures below 50 degrees.  Once the temps drop into the 40s or lower, the bees cluster around the queen and they use their wings to generate heat.  The larger the cluster, the more heat they can generate and the better chance they have of surviving the winter, as long as there’s enough food in the hive to keep them from starving.  Bees don’t sleep.  They work around the clock…each one has a role and a purpose.

Opening the hives in temperatures below 50 degrees risks breaking the cluster.  Best not to disturb the bees in the cold.  When the cluster is broken, or when bees get separated from the cluster in the cold, they can freeze.  So my rule of thumb is, if I see the bees out and about, then it’s ok for me to open the tops of the hives and add candy.

Checking on the Girls

I schlepped up to the hives to find them flying in full force, and judging by the blanket of bees atop the blanket of snow, they’ve been super busy cleaning house.  This is a good thing.  They clean all the dead bees and debris out of the hives whenever possible.  This helps prevent disease and keeps the colony healthy.  They’ve also been busy taking orientation flights (another term for much needed potty break), and bringing in pollen.  Yep, the little buggers found pollen in this desolate white land.  Gotta love their spunk!  It was a happy sight, indeed.

RIP Green Hive

I’d been anticipating the demise of Green Hive since the last time I’d checked on them.  Lots of bees were flying in and around the hive.  I also noticed some bees fighting at the bottom entrance (shown below).  A sign that Green Hive was being robbed by the other bees.

I opened the top and sure enough, the other bees were robbing the remaining candy and honey, and Green Hive’s cluster stared up from between the frames in a dead, frozen state (shown below).  Not one of my prouder moments as a beekeeper since I decided to take them into winter with two boxes rather than combining them with a stronger hive.  Another lesson learned…

Freezing temperatures are best for preserving dead hives since parasites won’t infest the hives as long as the temperatures are freezing.  Once things start to warm up in March, I’ll clean it up and get it ready to take in a new split colony in the spring, along with Blue Hive.

Recycled Swarm Trap

As I walked around the garden I noticed that the swarm trap that had been left up since last spring, has been claimed by some other form of wildlife.  I suspect squirrels.  They chewed large holes in both sides, and another hole that appears to be stuffed with garbage – plastic, paper, and who knows what else (shown below).  Well, if it couldn’t house a swarm, then I’m glad something else found a good use for it.  We’ll build another one in a few months and hope that it catches more swarms than this one did.

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After this weekend, we’re all back in cabin fever mode.  Hope it won’t be too long again before we get another reprieve.  Stay warm everyone and let’s hope Mr. Groundhog doesn’t see his shadow.  Early spring would bee nice :o)

 

 

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Ready for Spring

January 25, 2016 (Monday)

Hives in snow

It’s been an uneventful winter up til now.  Mother nature just hit us with a good 3 feet of snow this past weekend.  I know that’s not a big deal for some of you northern folks, but for us Marylanders, that’s a butt load of snow!

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How are the bees?  To bee honest, I won’t really know until the temperatures rise so I open the hives and add candy.  I’m hoping they have enough bees to stay warm and enough food to keep them going.  As I cleared snow off the hives, I did notice some dead bees in front of the entrances.   One or two flew out to see what was going on.  That’s always a good sign.

January is the time for clustering and keeping warm.  February and March is the time when they begin to produce more bees in preparation for spring, so keeping them fed and well ventilated during that time will be key to a strong start come spring.  Pollen patties are also on my to-do list.

As we were snowed in, I made a nice 10 lb batch of candy for the girls.  And we can’t forget the birds either, so I melted some tallow that had been rendered for soaps and mixed in some bird seed to make suet cakes.  Next week we cold crash and bottle a 10 gallon batch of blueberry mead, which will go on to age indefinitely.  We’re staying busy with indoor activities, but definitely looking forward to spring.   Hope everyone’s bees are doing well.  Stay safe and warm.

Candy and suet

 

Playing Catch Up

December 24, 2015

Happy Holidays to everyone!  I’m woefully behind on bee updates, and now that all the holiday hustle and bustle is slowing down, it’s a good time for a quick recap of the past few months…

Picking up Where We Left Off…

Not sure if you recall the Price of Slacking post from mid-September.  Laying patterns were sporadic or brood was dwindling in three hives.  For the record, this is not uncommon when the seasons change and the bees begin to transition their focus from multiplying their numbers to storing food for the winter.  Regardless, I made the mistake of getting involved by ordering 3 mite resistant queens from PA ($150 w/ shipping, yikes!).  High price due to 1) scarcity of queens that time of year, and 2) they were good quality, mite resistant queens from a very reputable breeder.  And they came from PA, so I knew they could withstand our winter.

 

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New Queens in the Hives

For the first time, I entered the hives with the intent of pinching queens.  Of course, when I reentered hives to replace the queens, the brood patterns had improved in all three hives. Ugh!  Too late, I had the queens in hand, so I found and pinched 2 nice looking queens in Purple and Blue hives and added the new queens.  I felt sick over it and decided I will not do that again.  However, I was patting myself on the back upon realizing that I am indeed capable of successfully identifying unmarked queens.

Green hive had dwindled in numbers, so I reduced their boxes down to two and could not find their queen.  I ended up leaving them with their existing queen…which left me with one homeless queen.  I gave her to a fellow bee club member and tried to brush this fiasco out of mind.

RIP Blue Hive

Blue Hive did not take.  They died out within a week or two.  The queen in Purple Hive did take.  We entered winter with 4 hives.  Who knows if they would still be going had I not gotten involved.  I know I’d be $150 richer!

 

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Ever Forward…into Winter

I winterized the girls in October, adding the wind barriers and mouse guards.  I made candy, which was added to the hives a week ago.  Believe it or not, we’ve had 70 degree weather in December here in MD.  Not sure if that’s good or bad, but the bees seem to enjoy it when the sun shines.  It’s been wet, so ventilation and ice are at the top of my concerns this winter.

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All four hives are still going.  Green hive is small and fragile, so I don’t have high hopes for them.  Yellow hive is not as strong as they had been over the summer.  Mint and Purple hives are currently my two strongest.  As I’ve said many times, anything can happen at any time.  Just keep them fed and well ventilated, and hope for the best.

In the meantime, we’re making good use of the honey.  The hubster has already made a braggot (honey beer), and I have 10 gallons of mead aging in the hall closet. We’ve been eating it and cooking with it.  I made cream honey for Christmas gifts, and I’ve been making lots of lotions and potions to sell for my Bead and Bubble business.  We’ll have an online store up soon.

Three Years of BooBee Honey!

All in all, we’re truly blessed with our bees and blessed to have so many friends and family who are interested in learning and reading about them.  I’ve been writing this blog for three years.  Hard to believe.  I’ve referred back to it many times myself, and I’m thrilled everytime another beekeeper tells me they love my blog and have learned from it.  That’s what it’s all about.

Thank you all for sharing our beekeeping adventure.  The journey is far from over!

Merry Christmas (and/or happy holidays) and best wishes for a thriving 2016 beekeeping year!

Paula, the Hubster, and the Bees

DIY Powdered Sugar for Sugar Rolls

September 13, 2015

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Sugar rolls sound more like a sweet breakfast treat rather than a mite preventative for bees. I’ve said time and again that I will not treat for mites, at least not with chemicals. I did it once, never again. But I’m not against using natural, organic practices, like sugar rolls, or fogging with mineral oil. I don’t have a garden fogger yet (note to hubster…it’s on my Amazon holiday wishlist!), but I do have plenty of sugar, so I decided to attempt my first sugar rolls to help manage/reduce mites in the hives.

What’s a Sugar Roll?

Sugar rolls are a very common, natural, chemical free mite management method used by many, many beekeepers. I question whether there’s any real scientific evidence to prove its effectiveness, but then again, a million flies can’t be wrong. There’s a reason so many beekeepers do it.

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The process involves shaking a thick layer of powdered sugar across the top frames of each box (1 cup per deep box. 1/2 to 2/3 cup per medium box), then lightly brushing back and forth across the tops of the frames to push the sugar down between the frames (this is the “roll”), covering the bees in sugar.

This does two things…

  • The sugar creates a slippery surface on the bees that will cause the mites to lose their grip and fall down out of the hive through the screened bottom board; and
  • The bees clean themselves and each other profusely, consuming the sugar, picking off the mites and dropping them out of the hive though the screened bottom board.

Sugar rolls don’t destroy the mite populations like chemicals do, but when performed on a scheduled basis (e.g. every month or two), they help keep the mite populations manageable by the bees and the beekeeper. No harm comes to the bees…they like sugar. Just bee gentle with brush when rolling. Also use a shaker that distributes the sugar lightly and evenly. I have a Pampered Chef sugar shaker that holds about 1 cup of sugar and works bee-utifully. I had the large container of powdered sugar open and handy as I worked, and I just reloaded my shaker between boxes.

Pure Homemade Powdered Sugar, Minus the Cornstarch

The hardest part was finding powdered sugar that doesn’t contain cornstarch. Cornstarch is bad for the bees, and I quickly discovered that virtually every bag of powdered sugar sold in stores contains cornstarch…even the more expensive Dominos brand. So I decided to make my own powdered sugar.

Nothing but the best for my bees – pure, homemade powdered sugar is actually super easy to make in a really good blender. We have a Ninja blender, which includes the smaller shake containers that attach directly onto the blender. I found that the large blender container didn’t work so well at pulverizing the sugar into powder, but the small containers and processors works great!

I added about ¾ cups of granulated sugar to each shake container and blended for about 30-45 seconds, til I could see the sugar change in consistency – it becomes more condensed and powdery in the blender.

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Voila…powdered sugar, minus the cornstarch. Save leftovers in airtight containers for future sugar rolls or, dare I say it….holiday baking.   So long summer, hello fall…

The Price of Slacking

September 7, 2015

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I did more spectating than inspecting this summer. All hives were well populated, honey production was high, and activity was high all summer. I figured they just do better when I leave them alone and that they would continue to do well until it was time to prep for winter. I’d even hoped for a fall honey harvest.  The bees, however, started going in a different direction…

Labor Day Inspection

On Labor Day I inspected the hives for the first time in probably a month and a half. No honey, which wasn’t terribly surprising considering we’ve had a dearth here since the end of July. They’d had plenty of stores, which they’d done a good job of consuming. I swapped frames around, removing the supers and adding honey frames back to the hives.

All hives had brood, but the numbers had dwindled in Purple and Green hives.  Even in Blue Hive the brood patterns were very spotty. That meant either (or both) the queens were weak, they were queenless, or varroa mites were in full force. From what I’ve heard, mite counts are high this year. But I have hygenic, mite resistant bees, and I don’t treat because I’d like for them to stay mite resistant.

I returned to the shop with frame filled supers, a collection of wet nectar and honey frames, dry untouched frames, and dry drawn comb. I separated the frames – dry, wet, honey. Wet frames were set outside so the bees could clean them up (farther than 50ft from the hives, of course). Honey frames were wrapped in plastic and frozen, and dry frames (including the frames cleaned by the bees) were stacked and stored with moth crystals.

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The Search for Three Queens

It was a busy afternoon, but at least I knew where the girls stood. Immediately, I began looking up sources for queens since I hadn’t seen any signs of varroa – the bees looked healthy, no wing deformity, no signs of mites on the bees or larvae. BeeWeaver is where I purchased my existing queens. The bees started out hot, but they are mite resistant, fast producers, and hardy in the winter. The problem was they had no queens available until mid-October. I can’t wait that long. I need queens now so they have some chance of building up their populations before the cold weather gets here. I hate to mix my bees again and would prefer to keep the BeeWeaver lines going, but I also don’t want to risk losing three hives.

The hardest thing about beekeeping is finding a queen when you need one. I can understand completely why people choose to rear their own queens. Or better yet, next year I might put together several nucs in July or August so I’ll have one or two queens and some extra bees available if needed.  Fortunately, I was lucky enough to find a private queen breeder in Pennsylvania, a retired USDA employee with vast knowledge and experience who rears his own hygenic queens. They weren’t cheap, but they’re in the mail.

Lesson learned – what looks good on the outside may not bee so good on the inside. A lot can change over the course of 2 or 3 weeks, so keep up with inspections at least every 3 or 4 weeks.

Who’s Still Buzzing?

Sunday, February 8, 2015

The temps hit mid-forties this weekend.  In the middle of February, you take any opportunity to check on the girls and make sure they have plenty of food.  My last check was disappointing.  Mint hive was the only one that showed any significant activity, and yellow hive had died.  I since made a sugar cake, just incase, and upon tapping on the hives a few times over the past week or two, I was relieved to hear some signs of life.  But I wasn’t sure of their current states until today…

Pink Hive – This is what you want to see when you lift the cover… 

Pink Hive - looking good!

Mint Green Hive – A smaller cluster, but still going.  

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Green Hive – Small, tight cluster – looking good.

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Blue Hive – I could see how they were doing before I even lifted the lid. 

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Blue hive –  strong on the inside too!  

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Yay, four hives still going.  As happy as I was to see them, they weren’t happy at all to see me.  Mean little buggers.  I love my bees, but they really need to learn to be more gracious to the beekeeper who feeds them!

I’m never too optimistic for fear of jinxing them.  Anything can happen at any time, and we still have another solid month and half of cold weather (6 weeks at least if you listen to Mr. Groundhog).  They say March timeframe is one of the riskiest – that’s often when hives start to become active and can easily starve if they don’t have enough stores.  I’ll keep another sugar cake in reserve, just for added insurance.   As for why yellow hive died out – that’s a good question – who knows, mites, starvation.  I need to pull the boxes apart and inspect further, but if I’m not mistaken, that’s the only hive that never had a Texas queen.  My Texas bees are hardy and they seemed to thrive in the cold weather last year.  So this year I’ll try to split more hives from my Texas girls.  We really need to work on their temperaments though.

Here’s to wishing away the winter blahs and hoping for an early spring!

Sugar Cakes for Winter Feeding

Saturday, February 7, 2015

I took advantage of a recent snow day to make sugar cakes for the bees.  This is my second winter, so I’ve only made candy, which requires boiling and stirring and timing and thermometers and some messy clean-up.  Sugar cakes, on the other hand, are super simple to make and they provide a nice hefty block of food that will last at least a month or two in the hives.  It’s good insurance during these harsh cold months.

Here’s my recipe…

BooBee Sugar Cakes

Ingredients

  • 1 – 5 lb bag white granulated sugar
  • 7 oz. bottled or distilled water
  • 1 tsp Honey B Healthy or similar natural supplement and other additives as desired (lemon juice, cinnamon, etc.)
  • Two 9×13 baking pans or one double large aluminum baking pan from the store works well too, and reduces clean-up.
  • Parchment paper for lining the pan (optional)

Note:  You can also increase the water slightly and add some pollen to this mixture as well.  I just add pollen patties to the hive. 

Instructions

1.  Measure out your ingredients.

If you use the large bags of sugar like me, then a kitchen scale that weighs up to 10 lbs or more is handy.  Also handy is a kitchen helper who can offer an extra set of eyes to make sure your measurements are extra precise.

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2.  Add the water and Honey B Healthy to the sugar.

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3.  Begin stirring with a spatula or spoon, then just use your hands to work it into an even dough.

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4. If preferred, you can line your baking pan(s) in parchment paper so it can be easily transferred into the hives without falling apart.  The mixture will dry and becomes quite solid, so I don’t bother using a liner.

5.  Pour the sugar dough into the pan, spread it out evenly, and press it down tightly.

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6.  Use a knife to score and section off the cake before it dries.  I cut mine into 4 large pieces.  I’ll insert one block per hive.

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7.  Take your finished pan of sugar cakes and place it in a warm, dry room for at least 2 days until it dries out and hardens.

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8. Dig out the blocks and allow to dry a bit more.  Since the bottom doesn’t get air, it may still bee a bit moist.  Again, if you use parchment to line the bottom of the pan before pouring the sugar, then you can pull them right up and place the blocks into the hive.  But if you don’t line the bottom, then its a good idea to flip the block and allow the bottoms to dry, as well.

My pieces broke in some places, but for the most part, they are large, easy to handle chunks that will be savored and appreciated by the bees as they continue to survive a few more weeks of winter.  Now we wait for a nice 40-50-something degree day so I can quickly pop these into the hives.  Always good to bee prepared!

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