Winter Winners This Year

Reader Contribution by Kim Flottum
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Winter Winners

There are few things in the hobby or business of beekeeping that give more satisfaction than seeing that the work, the study, the effort, the experience, the weather, and luck made things go right. And it takes all of those things…you have to do the right thing, the right way at the right time every time to make managing bees good for the bees…which everything we do has to do…and good for the beekeeper.

Winter…winter’s the killer when it’s hard where you live. But it hasn’t been too hard here (and not too hard in many  places, actually) so far this year. We went into the fall thinking it was going to be the hardest winter in years…cold, lots of snow, more cold…nothing but confinement for the bees for weeks and weeks. That’s what they told us, back in August in the almanacs…be prepared they said. So, be prepared we were.

And here’s the deal. Our bees didn’t choose to live where I put them. And they didn’t choose how many other bees were in the neighborhood they had to compete with for available nutrition. And they didn’t choose the homes I put them in, and they didn’t choose the climate I’ve forced them to survive in. No, they came here because I had money to buy packages, time to collect swarms, and skill to make splits. But not one, not one single honey bee of the thousands and thousands of honey bees in my back yard complained. Not a peep, not a whine, not a whimper.

Rather, they did the best they could, when they could, the only way they could. And mostly, that works pretty well, no matter how many obstacles I throw at them, the climate throws at them, other bees throw at them, or just plain dumb luck throws at them. They thrive, survive, or perish…

A beekeeper’s job, should they choose to accept it, and they darn well better, is to compensate the bees in their care for all of the above. Weather, food, environment, and luck.

So. Last spring we began our mite control efforts using screened bottom boards, drone brood removal, and making late-summer splits. Our mite loads were almost zero come October, so we weren’t worried about the damage mites could do overwinter. We also made sure no other problems were present…other diseases, pests and the like. We examined each colony then for how much food they had… both honey and pollen… and, importantly, where that food was located in relation to where the cluster was, and where it would be come February, when brood rearing usually begins in earnest.

To make sure, we left on more than eighty pounds of honey on every colony, except one smallish nuc with 45 pounds,, all the pollen that was already in the colony, and we fed every colony a pollen substitute, not to store…bees don’t store pollen substitute in the colony, rather those bees that go into winter consume it, and beef up (sorry, bad pun) their own health…their own protein levels…so they do well over winter, and are healthy come spring to take care of the new bees emerging. 

Enough good food in the right place is the rule, and we made sure that was the case for every colony.

What we did, was….take care of the bees that take care of the bees that go into winter. Then, we took care of the winter bees…we super insulated and protected all of those hives…insulated plastic wrap, and over that a heavy-duty corrugated cardboard box. We left the inner cover on, but there is that vent hole on top and the box flaps over that…and all that warm, moist air just flowed up and out. The box kept the inner cover warm enough that the moist air didn’t condense inside and drip down…it worked like a charm. And then we put the cover over the flaps of the box so it was protected from the elements.

But of course winter didn’t show up this year…well, at least it hadn’t as of early Feb…and the Weather Channel’s not predicting much in the way of nasty for the next several weeks (no matter what that ground hog says)…and by then it’s spring.  That’s a good thing in my book.

So for now, our winter prep seems to be overkill, but I’ll take that any day…having strong, healthy colonies six weeks from now is all I ask…and it looks like it’s going to work. I’ll let you know.

Get ready for an adventure!

Starting mid-February, we’ll be traveling from southern to northern California visiting beekeepers, pollination brokers, scientists, almond growers, colony inspectors, almond processors, queen and package producers, politicians, alternative pollinators, and more. It’ll be 3 weeks on the road, with updates here, in our magazine Bee Culture, and at, too. Come on along for our Almond Odyssey…it’s never been done, and you’ll have a front row seat.