Wednesday, November 3, 2010
Posted by Kate at 3:38 PM
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.