Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Wintering 101 Part One: It’s a-Comin’.

There is probably no subject in beekeeping that sparks so many debates (and arguments) as preparing hives for winter. There are an infinite number of methods, practices, tricks and superstitions, and every beekeeper has his or her own beekeepers brew for overwintering. Regardless of what anyone will tell you, there is no RIGHT way to overwinter your bees. There is no universal method that works the best for everybody everywhere and leaves everyone happy because all of their bees survived the winter and everyone is happy, hooray.

Beehive in Winter

There is, however, a right way for you.

You'll have to find it out for yourself, building it up from the dizzying array of methods and strategies. You'll make mistakes along the way (I did) but eventually you will arrive at a method that is right for you. I'll try to help by explaining some of your options and the rationales behind them.

First, it's really important to understand what happens to bees in the winter. Very few non-beekeepers know the answer to ”where do they go in the winter?”; it's easily one of the most asked questions any time I do a public Q&A. The answer is simple: they don't GO anywhere! They stay put, nestled in their hive, focused on one thing and one thing only: surviving the winter. Once the outside temperature drops below 50, the bees form what is called a “cluster,” a round, solid mass of bees. Essentially, all the bees in the hive pack themselves into as small a space as possible in order to conserve heat, which is pretty much what I do when it gets cold out. Imagine the cohesive mass of a swarm, but tighter and packed over a few frames, and you'll get the basic idea. By “shivering” their wing muscles, the mass of workers can maintain the 92–94F temperatures needed to sustain the queen and a small number of brood throughout the winter. It's important to keep in mind that the bees are NOT hibernating. Any time the outside temperature gets high enough, they'll move the cluster to a new location within the hive, ideally one with fresh stores of honey and pollen, and take cleansing flights.

But the most important thing of all?

Honeybees have been doing this for millions of years without our help, interference, or assistance. Yeah, it's easy to assume that our bees couldn’t survive without us, but I think that's more than a little bit egocentric on our part.

In the next couple of articles, I'm going to walk you through the various aspects of preparing your hives (and yourself) for the oncoming winter. Check back often or subscribe to the BoroughBees feed and, as always, feel free to email me with nifty questions or anything else you'd like to share.

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