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