Last Winter’s Beekeeping Mistake – Avoid These Things

We’ve been thinking carefully this fall about how best to prepare our hives for winter.  Last week I reviewed last winter’s records to remember exactly what we’d done. Last year our efforts to prepare our hives for winter apparently didn’t work out so well–we lost our beloved Hive 1 after the last late freeze in early 2020. Hive 2 didn’t fare well either–by the time spring had arrived they were a very small cluster and it took a long time for Hive 2′s queen to rebuild the hive’s population.  Both hives had been very strong going into winter in 2011, and I had to wonder what had happened.

beehives in line

Climate change has done funny things to our winters in the Bay Area.  The latest trend seems to involve a shift of the coldest and wettest weather from December and January to March and April.  Last year we reasoned that we would leave the girls extra honey to last them through a freezing spring, and so left 2 additional full deep boxes of capped honey on both hives.  This was the only real change in our winter hive preparations last year, which otherwise included our usual winter tasks of reducing the entrance and putting a heavyweight on the hive top.

Since both hives did not do well last winter, I had to wonder if it was due to beekeeper error–specifically our decision to leave those extra boxes of capped honey (which didn’t really get eaten) on the hives.  I thought it would be wise to put the question to our teacher, Serge Labesque, and ask his opinion.  In my area, best practice states that 30-40 pounds of honey be left on the hive for winter.  Please note that this number may be different for your area, and you should consult with local experienced beekeepers.

According to Serge:

 …excessively large amounts of honey are detrimental, because honey has a huge thermal mass.  Leaving too much in the hives stresses the colonies, and they may have a hard time developing at the end of winter…The trick is to leave enough honey to avoid starvation before the spring flow, without overloading the bees.  

Serge

We had left a lot of honey on Hives 1 and 2–significantly more than 40 pounds.  My research has yielded varying numbers for the weights of capped frames of honey.  For instance, people say a medium frame of capped honey will weigh anywhere from 3-6 pounds (1.36-3.17 kg) and a deep frame will weigh from 5-9 pounds (2.26-4 kg). We probably left about double what the girls needed for the winter, so this year, we decided to leave 40 pounds max on each hive.  When we checked the hives last week, we discovered, as we had last year, that the girls had significantly more than 40 pounds stored up.  We had to remove some of their honey.

You Should not be Irresponsible When Beekeeping

A while back, I received a comment concerning the influx of new beekeepers (scroll down to comments) who’ve gotten into the game because it’s the new urban cool. Sometimes, it is just a wish that never comes to pass, and other times, folks put a lot of energy into making it come true.

The commenter wrote of the problems she’s seen in the past couple of years as the newly eager flock to keep bees.  She is concerned about the fallout from so many people keeping bees who are inexperienced, ignorant, or not dedicated to learning well how to keep bees.  For instance, she worried that many new beekeepers would realize they don’t like it, leaving in their wake abandoned hives.  I admit I was in a bit of denial.  Who the heck would spend the money and invest the time to keep bees only to give it up after a year or two???

Enter my own close-to-home example.  After getting back from Europe, someone asked me if I wouldn’t mind harvesting the honey from her friends’ two backyard hives.  I asked, “Where’s the beekeeper?”  She said that the beekeeper wasn’t there, as it was one of those “honey for space in your backyard” deals, and the absent beekeeper wasn’t responding to her friends’ (the owners of the backyard) many phone calls and pleas.  In fact, she became angry at his requests!

I was hesitant.  I didn’t want the beekeeper to get angry with me for taking her equipment or “her honey” off the property.  I asked how long this beekeeper had neglected these hives, and I was told that she hadn’t checked the bees in a year.  Her friend was so angry at the beekeeper’s surly and irresponsible behavior that he was not going to let her onto his property anymore.  As far as he was concerned, the hiveware and bees were now his to do with as he pleased.

I am concerned about these bees. I was just out in my own bee yard recently getting our bees ready for the winter.  Were those other bees going to get through winter?  I asked my contact to ask her friend some questions:  Had the bees been treated with chemicals?  What is their temperament?  Do they suffer from any known diseases? Have the owners of the property really seen bees coming in and out of the entrance? She said the owners had seen bees at the entrance, so now I am waiting to hear answers to the other questions.

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