Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Honey Bees Update

Now that we're settling down into some properly autumnal weather, with temperatures dipping below freezing overnight, I think it's finally time for an update on the honey bee experiment that began in April.  The short version of the report is: we lost one colony early, and the surviving one is understrength going into the winter.

Izhevsk, our colony of Russian honey bees, looked good all through the spring and into midsummer.  But sometime during late July they ate down just about all the honey they had stored, and have basically been limping along ever since.  They appear to still have a functioning queen.  We've seen her clearly, as she's marked with a blue dot.  No signs of supersedure cells, so the workers apparently think she's healthy and capable of performing her duty as the reproductive organ of the colony.  And yet, we've seen precious little brood since July.  Many experienced beekeepers reported starving colonies this year, apparently due to the exceptionally hot and dry summer here in the east.

There was no question of taking any harvest of honey whatsoever.  We've been feeding them sugar syrup, which I don't like to do.  But there's little doubt they'd long since have died without the help.  They have two full feeders' worth of the syrup at the moment, but if temperatures are cold enough they won't even travel within their own hive to get at the food.  Honey bees have been known to starve to death in the center of a hive, with full frames of honey mere inches away.  Right now the colony is mostly huddled into a single medium box.  That's likely not enough bees to generate sufficient heat to make it through winter.

We added a thick insulation layer of rigid foamboard to three sides of the hive, and black tarpaper to the south-facing side, in an attempt to help them along.  We cut plenty of space around their reduced entrance, so that they still have a front door landing pad. The idea is for the insulation to prevent windchill and the black paper to provide a little solar gain.  But we've also left the bottom completely open except for the built-in screen on the bottom board.  We also added a few spacers to increase airflow from the top cover.  Condensation and moisture in the colony is more of a risk than cold temperatures - at least for a strong, well provisioned colony.  Izhevsk is not strong however.   It seems almost futile to insulate the sides of a hive while leaving so much airflow, but such is the received wisdom.

It's possible the bees may survive this winter, and the milder it is, the better their odds.  I figured this first year of beekeeping would be a major learning experience, and it has been.  Experience is one of those things you get after you need it.  Sadly, the bees paid dearly for our year of learning.  If we lose Izhevsk, we'll certainly try again next year, and I believe, make fewer mistakes.  I put in quite a few perennial plants this year with a view to providing bee forage.  They'll be larger next year, and so provide more nectar to them.  In any case, we're likely to try again with an Italian colony next year.  We're not giving up on beekeeping.

So that's the report - ambiguous but definitely not rosy.  It's unlikely we'll check on them or feed them again unless we happen to get a particularly warm day before spring.  Until then, all we can do is hope the golden ladies make it.


Anonymous said...

*crosses fingers & hopes for a mild winter*

Mitzi G Burger said...

I do like the stark soviet architecture of the hive supports.

A question: are the worker bees mixed gender? Or is the queen bee the sole female? I think I'd incorrectly assumed all were male, but perhaps "golden ladies" suggests otherwise.

Experience - true that!

Building A Better Life said...

I hope they survive!! And - all the neighborhood bees seem to converge on my grapevines in the summer. So if you don't have any, apparently bees really love them!

Kate said...

Annette, thanks. Same here.

Mitzi, all the worker bees are female. I doubt there's a single drone (male) in the hive right now. Drones contributing *nothing* to their own colony. No room for passengers over the winter months. If the colony survives, they'll raise drones in the spring, when there's food to spare.

BABL, thanks. We have grapes that produced a little this year. I never noticed the bees on them. Perhaps other bees, other than honey bees, are attracted to yours? Were they on the fruit itself? We definitely had a few yellow jackets on the clusters.

Tamar@StarvingofftheLand said...

We'll keep our fingers crossed for all the Northeast bees this winter -- yours, ours, and everyone else's. We also heard of starving hives this season, but ours, thankfully, seem okay. There's no extra honey, but still some stores in the deeps.

We're also feeding sugar syrup (2:1, to minimize the work they have to do to get the moisture out), and plan on feeding fondant through the winter.

Here's to a mild winter, and a better year coming.

meemsnyc said...

This is a great update! My husband wants to start a beehive, but I've been really hesitant. I hope your bees survive the winter.

Vera said...

Interesting post, especially since we hope to get our first hives of bees next year, which is a bit of a daunting prospect since we know nothing about bees. It's nice to know there are other novices out there, and to learn by their experiences. Hope your bees make it through the winter. You have certainly done all that you can to keep them safe and healthy.

Hazel said...

My friend over the road with bees has had a very up and down year with his new bees too.

Fingers crossed for the winter. All the farmers here are saying it's going to be a dry cold winter here in the UK,so lets hope it's not too long.

Kate said...

Tamar, glad to hear your bees are in good shape. It gives me hope that we'll eventually pull off a successful colony, even if this first attempt doesn't make it. I'll join you in wishing for a mild winter.

meemsnyc, thanks. If you're thinking about starting bees next year, stock up over the holidays when baking supplies go on sale. The 5-pound bags of pure cane sugar are what you'll want. I plan to stock up on many of them.

Vera, see my comment to meemsnyc. I make the same recommendation to any aspiring beekeeper. If I had it to do over again, I'd take a full year of studying up and getting to know the local beekeeping scene before I started in with the bees. But I just did a winter crash course and started in the spring. It's a steep learning curve sort of hobby, but don't let that discourage you.

Thanks, Hazel. I'll take any good thoughts for a mild winter, on either side of the pond.

. . . Lisa and Robb . . . said...

Hope your remaining bees overwinter. We lost one if our two colonies. I think the varroa mites got too bad, and they absconded.

Kate said...

Thanks, L and R. I'm not exceedingly optimistic about the situation. The winter was a hard one, and they weren't numerous going into winter. But I appreciate the good wishes. We have another package ordered either way and will keep trying.

Anonymous said...

I feel your pain... We also lost a colony early in the season, and our remaining bees did not survive the rough winter in NJ. I wouldn't wish that on anyone, but honestly it helps a bit to know it wasn't just us. Cleaning out the dead bees today was absolutely heartbreaking, but we're going to start again and hope for a better year. Good luck, hope your colony fared better than ours!