Friday, April 6, 2012

What Happened this Winter

One might think that a mild winter would be easy on the bees. One would be wrong. Bees are actually programmed to survive the cold. When the temperature drops, the queen stops laying eggs and the bees gather together in a cluster. They shiver their wings and take turns being in the warmest part of the cluster. Enter the mildest Ohio winter anyone can remember.

When the temperature gets above 40, the bees come out of their cluster and take cleansing flights (NO POOPING IN THE HIVE!!). In January, we had some 60 degree days. In February, too. We all know the trees and flowers were confused with the springlike winter and so were the bees. They broke out of their clusters. The queens starting laying eggs two months earlier than they were supposed to. The workers were beginning to care for the brood and when the temperatures dropped to the 30s, they were not in their clusters. They got too cold and they died. Well, most of them died, and more importantly, the queens died.

On Feburary 20, after a couple of glorious 60 degree days, I opened up my hives. I had been seeing bees flying about so I expected to see bees in the hive. In each hive I found puny little clusters the size of a large egg. A healthy cluster is the size of a basketball. A week later I looked again and found two out of three of my queens, dead. There were still bees flying about. They might have been my own bees who had not yet died of old age or they might have been someone else's bees robbing the honey still stored in the combs. I felt SO sad. I was sure at least one hive (the one with the cranky bees) would make it.

The same scene played out all over central Ohio. The seasoned beekeepers are quite matter of fact about dead colonies. This is agriculture; they are not pets. They spend no time mourning, but look intellectually at what went wrong. Easy for them.

I know I had strong colonies going into the winter. I know they did not starve as there was ample honey stored in each hive. They were fed, sugared, insulated. I can't control the variables any more than that. I can't control the weather. And I have no idea if my Madison County bees survived.

I can, and did, order new bees. This time instead of ordering packages of Italian bees with Italian queens, I ordered three nucs. A nuc is a mini beehive. Instead of 8 or 10 frames it has 5. There are lots of reasons beekeepers create nucs and perhaps I'll cover them in a future post, but these nucs were created by one of my mentors. The queens are from the best stock of a line of Ohio queens and the nucs were created while the queens were still laying last summer. These Ohio queens in their mini hives with their genetic daughters overwintered beautifully. Last April 20, I installed three packages of bees. Yesterday, April 5, I picked up my nucs and installed them in my ghost town hive boxes. Tune in tomorrow and I'll tell you how that went.

Here's a hint: 2012 sting count, 0.

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