Good night, bees. Sleep tight till spring…

| Courses + Workshops, Natural Beekeeping | comments | Author :

I am pleased to say that our emergency measure of combining two Warré beehive colonies at Milkwood Farm seems to have worked. The two colonies have made friends, combined,  and are now operating as one big family (or super organism, to be technical).

Time to bed the new uber-colony down for winter, following one last inspection as part of our first on-farm natural beekeeping course. As i write this, the bees are now tucked up against the cold, with an extra box of honey on top to keep them supplied till spring. We won’t bother them until then, for a couple of reasons…

Tim shows the underside of one of the warré boxes from our hive full of naturally drawn comb

The first reason we won’t be bothering them all winter is that every time you open a hive, you drastically change the core temperature. And keeping warm is a big deal for bees.

A honeybee colony self-generates a core temperature of around 35ºc, which is saying something for insects. It’s not like they have mammalian warmth on their side! They create this warmth by friction – literally buzzing and shivering. And that’s a lot of buzzing to keep a hive at 35ºc in the middle of winter…

All that buzzing takes a lot of energy, as you can imagine. Every time you open a hive, it can take that colony up to 3 days to regain it’s core temperature, which of course places a fair bit of extra stress on the bees. Bees are vulnerable enough in winter as it is. No need to place extra stress on the colony.

Tim checks that the queen is laying and all is well in the hive
The class having a good look at a frame from our warré hive. The cell-grazed sheep beyond are not as interested.

The second reason we won’t be bothering the bees is that we don’t want to risk chilling the brood (the baby bees) in their brood cells. Chilling the brood can kill them, which is not a way to ensure a thriving, resilient colony.

The third reason we won’t be bothering the is because we don’t need to. Tim Malfroy kindly brought a box of honeycomb to put on top of our colony, which will be enough to feed the bees through the winter till spring, when nectar starts flowing gain and the bees can go foraging.

Our bees don’t have enough of their own honey stores due to reasons described in Putting our honey where our mouth is: a lean year.

Tim with a frame full of honeycomb, from the box of honey he's about to put on top of our hive.

A note that you should only feed bees honey if you are sure that the hive that the honeycomb is coming from is disease free (which Tim is sure of, in this case – and he’s been doing this all his life, so I’m happy with that call). If you don’t have any honey, you’d need to feed the bees sugar water… something we’re trying to avoid.

The box of honey will do two things for our colony. It will provide food until spring, and it will also create a thermal dome above the colony, which will help keep the colony warm.

In a natural beehive, bees set their hive up this way, with the honey stores above the colony. Extra insulation in winter is a wonderful thing for retaining heat.

Diagram of a typical italian honeybee (apis mellifera) hive in nature, with a dome of honey above the colony.
Tim and the class checking out a feral bee hive in a tree hollow at Milkwood Farm, also getting ready to bed down for winter.

The bees have long since stopped flying out of the hive in significant numbers – they’re all staying inside where it’s safe and warm. They generally fly when the outside temperature is a minimum of 13-15ºc, and that is our maximum temperature on a good day at the moment!

There’s still the possibility something could go wrong with this colony over winter, but any way you look at it, we think the bees are best off dealing with their winter in as much warmth as we can provide. We’ll open the hive again in spring and see how they’ve wintered.

The traditional end-of-class treat: a taste of warré honeycomb for everyone!
Maybe just one more piece...

We know what we’re doing isn’t a conventional approach to bees in winter, but then, the more I learn about bees, the more i think we need to depart from  the conventional western industrial beekeeping approach in order to ensure the future of honeybees, and all that goes with that future.

So I’m happy to leave the bees alone till Spring comes around. Good night, bees. Sleep tight till Spring!

If you’d like to learn about natural and Warré beekeeping, we run classes with Tim Malfroy at our farm and in Sydney. If you’re further afield, there’s plenty of resources you can access, starting with the links at the bottom of any of our warré beekeeping posts.

Or join the new Warré Beekeeping Australia FaceBook group!

Cheers as always to Tim Malfroy for his generosity and companionship, and for putting up with all my newbie beekeeper questions.

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6 responses to “Good night, bees. Sleep tight till spring…

  1. Hi Kirsten!

    First off, I’m a long time reader, and am completely in love with the Milkwood blog. It’s certainly my favorite permaculture blog, and probably my favorite blog in any category.

    You strike a really great balance between being excited and talking about the importance of your work without sounding braggy or holier-than-thou, which uncommon. I think your openness about your setbacks really helps, and I think it’s often just as valuable to see what didn’t work as what did. Other permaculture/maker blogs sometimes intimidate me, but this one always leaves me inspired and energize.

    So thank you for months and months of inspiring posts.

    About the bees… I was wondering, when you say we need to depart from the conventional industrial beekeeping…. I’d be curious to know what is different between your approach and the traditional approach. Obviously the Warre boxes are a bit different in structure than the traditional ones, but I’d be interested to know where else you diverge… mostly so if during my research I see someone else on the web advocating such practices I can ignore them. 🙂

    Thanks again for the awesome work,

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