After the polar vortex visited us with -30°F temperatures, we warmed up to the mid 40ºFs, and I took the opportunity to check on our bees.
At this time of year, the bees are not hibernating, as many people think. They form a cluster around the center of the hive and shiver themselves together to generate heat. In the center of this mass it is in the 70ºFs or more while on the outside they may be experiencing ambient temperatures. Bees work their way into the middle of the cluster and then back out to guzzle some honey before going back in. The colder it is, the tighter they cluster. The size is also related to their population, with strong populations making a ball as big as a volleyball in warm weather.
We went into the winter with four colonies. Two in the bee shed and two in long Langstroth hives. The two in the shed were the strongest hives going into the winter. As I popped the top of the first, I found the bees spread in a circle across eight frames, which means they had a large population. They also had plenty of honey left. The next hive in the shed was identical.
Next I checked on the long Langstroth hives. These are modified from typical hives in that they have thicker walls, more insulation space, and are easier to work because they go from side to side rather than up. Just like the colonies in the shed, these bees were covering six to eight frames and had plenty of honey, even the weakest hive going into the winter.
I gave each of the hives a candy board. This is sugar mixed with a little water that is heated to 250°F and poured into a cover that fits right on top of the hive. Once this cools, it forms a hard-candy-like layer that goes upside down on the hive. The moisture from the bees melts the sugar and they can eat it as emergency feed.
In sum, four of the four institute hives are doing well. If even two of them survive winter, we will have more bees than we know what to do with, as each one can be split into four daughter hives in the spring. This is good news, as you’ll read below.
We had four research hives this fall. We lost one due to robbing before the winter even started, and we were down to three total going into the winter. We had gotten these bees to start our research project on breeding mite-tolerant colonies. The original nuc was strong and we split it into four. In hindsight, we should have just split it into two.
Every one of the research hives died in the polar vortex. The bees were freshly dead, as no mold had grown and they had been seen alive before the vortex. They still had plenty of honey stores, so they didn’t starve. With the extreme cold, however, a large population is needed to keep the temperature of the hive up. They were just too small to make it through.
Luckily, the institute hives have been following the same breeding protocol as these hives and can provide replacements in the spring, assuming two or three of the four continue to survive as robust colonies. The honey stores from the dead outs will help the surviving hives continue to be just that: surviving hives.