Winter is a difficult time for a beekeeper.
You can visit the bees, but they don’t come out to play. You can’t open the hive and you certainly aren’t likely to get stung. (Is it weird that I kind of miss that?)
You have to satisfy yourself with trying to hear the bees inside. A stethoscope helps in that regard, but it’s not the same and you worry. Did they have enough honey stored for the winter? It didn’t snow until January this year, is the honey going to last for as long as they need it? Are there enough bees alive to keep the cluster healthy and warm?
It was doubly worrying because we only went into winter with one hive. You may recall that 2015 was a season of self-examination for us. We lost everything the previous winter and decided to step back, take a look at what we were doing, how we were doing it and figure out if we needed to change anything. We both did a lot of reading and research and are modifying our ways somewhat, but it’s mostly full steam ahead.
Late in July last year, a swarm moved into one of the empty hives in my side yard. Very nice bees too. I have no idea where they came from, but in about a month, they moved into a double-deep Langstroth hive, cleaned out any remnants of the previous tenants and packed away so much honey that we were able to harvest 60 lbs from them! Simply amazing.
I was really concerned about them this winter. We had another oddball season and the bees were still flying into early January. They were flying and eating honey but there was nothing for them to harvest to replace the stores. Then it turned cold in a hurry. Now, it was time to start worrying about that.
On January 20, I went out for a peek. It was somewhere around -20C, and this is what I saw at the upper entrances. That’s such a good sign too: it only happens when it’s really cold out and there’s a good sized colony inside. The water vapour from their breathing flows out through the entrance and crystallizes around the opening. I didn’t need the stethoscope, either. I could hear them just fine when I crouched down beside the hive. I knocked for good measure and the buzzing was so loud that Cameron jumped right back. 😀
A mid-February visit wasn’t so encouraging and I was convinced that they’d died. It wasn’t cold enough for ice crystals and I didn’t hear a thing when I knocked. Nothing. I was so sure that they were gone that I popped the lid for a peek and still heard nothing. They must have been clustered at the rear of the hive, underneath the remnants of the candy board, because they’re alive and well and there are loads of them.
This was the scene when I opened the lid for a peek on March 13. It was an unseasonable 8C, so I figured it was worth a look. Naturally, they’re a bit defensive this time of year and I almost immediately had three on my camera hand, but they weren’t in a stinging mood. There’s a really decent-size cluster of bees in there and if the weather forecast holds (warmer and drier than normal Spring), then we may be off to an early start this year.
It will be really interesting to see how these ladies do. I don’t know where the swarm came from, but I do know that there are no managed hives within at least a kilometer of here. I suspect that there’s a strong feral colony nearby (a swarm went overhead the day after we moved in) and with the honey production and wintering capabilities they’ve demonstrated so far, this could be a very good genetic line to propagate.
UPDATE: Since I first wrote this, I’ve found out where the swarm came from. My neighbour had a couple of hives the year that we moved in, but he lost them that winter. He got back into bees last spring and coincidentally, one of his hives swarmed in mid-July. So, they’re not ferals, but they do seem to be really good genetics. They’re been out and flying around at 5C, which really surprised me. I’m going to contact his supplier and see what the heck they are. 🙂