Sunday, January 25, 2015

Hives of Activity

 Well, despite the fact that it’s January 25th, our hives are a-buzzing! We couldn’t be happier. We expected that we would have some loss – some of those hives weren’t particularly strong when we bundled them up for winter, we are noo-bees, and winter loss is just a fact of the business. We expected we may lose two or even three of our little apiary, but today, again, they are busy at work. We had to see what they were up to.
The first thing we noticed was that the bees jumped at the opportunity the warmer temperatures brought, and started their spring cleaning. As we have said before, they are incredibly clean animals, not wanting any dirt or debris in their hives. Over the course of the winter, for one reason or another, bees don’t survive, so the first job when cleaning is to push the dead bees out. It looks like a fairly big task, but after watching them kick the drones out – sometimes requiring three and four workers to force the male out of the hive – in the fall, the job is probably a bit easier. Then again, at this time of year, the bees are probably not as strong, being older, and being inside the hive for weeks at a time.

Pushing dead bees from the hive.
We’re thrilled that they are not just surviving the winter, but thriving through it. That doesn’t mean that we are out of the woods, though. We still have to get through February, which can be bitterly cold here, and we may even have to help them get through March, so we can’t party down quite yet.
The hives are alive and busy, which means the bees are eating. More than likely, the Queen has started to lay eggs again, putting more demand on food stores. Starvation at this time of year is always a concern. They’re working, and they could go through their food rather quickly. If we continue to have warm days, though, they could soon start to gather pollen. *waits a minute for the laughter to stop* Here in the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia, the bees have a ready supply of pollen they can collect any time of the year – pine trees. They are great pollen producers, and if our weather keeps warm like this, and we can make to 60F, our bees could easily slip into the tree belt and get a bit of a nosh to keep them going.

A return of the cold weather could also give another opportunity to mites and disease, as the bees gather tightly together in the middle of the hive. As mentioned in earlier blogs, humidity in the hives is also a concern if the temperatures drop. The cluster of bees can maintain a temperature of 92F, but as they work to maintain that temperature, they sweat. Just like humans, when we consume food to live, we also give off solid and liquid waste. For bees, that moisture – respiration – rises to the top of the hive. If the temperature is below freezing outside, and the moisture collects, and the hives are not properly insulated, ice will form and block the bees from getting to the food. Our special tops on the hives help to stop this by having extra ventilation to allow the moisture to escape, and by having materials that will soak up the moisture without dropping it back down on the bees. That doesn’t mean it can’t happen though, so we still must be vigilant to keep them protected.

Yes, today we opened a hive. It’s cold, and we don’t want to let that cold air in, but we believed the hive had not survived. It was a wonderful surprise to find them alive and happy, and very busy. There’s still more winter to get through, but we’re feeling very blessed today, and are looking forward to getting back into the groove with our 150,000ish little ladies. 

Saturday, January 24, 2015

But BaBee It's Cold Outside

Bees in winter, you say? Why yes, on nice days, we do see our honey bees, even when there is snow on the ground.

Honey bees do not hibernate; even though they are, for the most part, out of sight tucked away warm and snug in their hives. Even here in cold, frozen Canada, honey bees do not hibernate. They don’t even take long naps like squirrels do. Bees work in winter. They work to stay warm, and that takes a lot of energy.

As we mentioned in our earlier blog, one of the things bees do to prepare for winter is to evict all the drones/males. Males don’t do anything in the hive. They don’t protect the hive, they don’t help with the production of honey. They are there for the sole purpose of breeding queens (but not the queen in their own hive). Queens only breed at one time in their lives but they will breed with as many as twenty different drones on that mating flight. She then returns to her hive and begins to lay her eggs. When there is a need, she will create some drone eggs, but otherwise all the eggs she lays will be females which will do the work to maintain the hive.

The eggs will progress to larvae which will be capped over by the workers. They then enter a pre-pupal and pupal stage before becoming a bee. This process will take 21 days for a worker bee, 16 days for a queen, and 24 days for a drone. For the first three weeks of their lives, worker bees will work in the hive. For the last three weeks of their lives, they are field bees, collecting pollen. (However, if you were to remove one class of bees – hive bees or field bees – completely from the hive, the other class moves in and takes over the work so that the hive survives).

All of this changes, though, come fall. The queen slows, then temporarily stops, laying eggs while the hive prepares for the winter months. They have put extra stores of honey and pollen away, and the hive uses these stores to survive throughout the winter and into spring until the temperatures are warm enough outside to start production again. Where summer bees generally live six weeks, winter bees have to survive throughout the winter, so they will live up to six months or even longer.

So what do these bees do during the winter? The sole goal of a bee is to help the hive survive. That’s what they do in the winter. They gather together, low in the center of the hive, and they generate heat to keep themselves warm. It’s amazing how much heat they can generate. As the winter progresses, and because heat moves up, the core of bees will move up the hive, consuming the food they put away. The stores at the top of the hive will be eaten last. The bigger problem in the hive, as opposed to heat, is humidity. It can, in essence, rain inside the hive, and that’s bad. For this purpose, we have special covers for the hive that include a layer of wood chips to help absorb the moisture, preventing it from condensing and falling onto the bees.

What they don’t do, though, is poop in their hives. Bees are fastidiously clean, so on those warm days, they leave the hive to take care of business. Even with the several feet of snow we have on the ground, the bees will come out. Unfortunately not all bees make it back to the hive. Inside the hive, though, because they are in confined spaces for long times, disease and mites can be a problem. Ordinarily bees can come and go and a sick bee is quickly replaced. In winter, the diseases and mites can get a better grip on them and can take a toll. In the fall, while preparing for winter, we help by doing treatments for these problems to help prevent or lessen the impact, but that doesn’t always work. The bees, the temperatures the length and intensity of the winter will all play a role, but seeing bee come out at this time of year gives us that much more hope that they were properly prepared, and will be more than ready to start production soon. There is nothing like the hum of a beehive in winter to remind you about how amazing these little critters are.