Anyway, work and other things have eaten up my time, so I decided it was time to close the hives up so I could stop worrying about them. Besides, winter, as evidenced by our first snowfall on Monday, is coming.
Different people have different strategies for wintering. For me, I pull any empty combs out of the hive. If needed, I add some sugar behind the last comb. Then I fill the back of the hive with straw. Mouse guards get slapped on, and insulation gets added above the bars along the sides of the hive. I strap everything together, and I'm done. (BTW, I love the insulated hives so much more every year. After removing any empty comb, I pop the mouse guards on and fill behind the divider board with straw. Boom. I'm done. It takes 5 minutes or less. No straps required because the roof & hive are so heavy. In the winter, that makes it really easy to feed if I have to.)
One of my major concerns for most of the hives this year is that they're underweight. I like to see at least 15 bars of capped comb. The hives were barely at 15, and most of the nucs were around 10-12 bars. However, even though the weather has been warm enough, it looks like most of the colonies had stopped taking syrup.
Even more problematic is that two of the hives (Hippolyte & Celestia) looked as though rain had seeped in -- they were flooded with about 1.5" of water. Celestia is my own fault since I never got around to building her a proper roof. Hippolyte, on the other hand, is a mystery. I couldn't find any cracks, and didn't have time to take the roof apart. Besides, I'd like to convert her roof to a hinged one in the spring, so it doesn't make sense to work on it now. As a stopgap, I wrapped the bars in tar paper before putting the roof back on. Will get some waterproof plastic or a tarp to make sure they don't leak during the winter. There were plenty of dead bees in both hives as a result of the water, but I don't know how the clusters are faring overall since it didn't seem like a good idea to break their winter seal. If anything, that would only stress them out more for no reason other than satisfying my curiosity.
One of my disappointments this fall was trying to bring Elsa up to weight. I'd given her several large jars of honey, but she barely ate any of it. The honey sat in the hive virtually untouched for weeks. I couldn't figure out why -- maybe because it was crystallized, maybe they just figured it was already stored in some oddly shaped cells. Who knows what goes through their little bee brains? Finally, I mixed the honey with some water to dissolve it, and the bees guzzled it up. Wish I'd thought to do that a couple months ago.
In the process of winterizing, I discovered that Hippolyte has been under attack. Wasps or hornets would be my guess. Decapitated bees littered the bottom of the hive and the tops of the bars. Again, this is my fault. I'd opened a top entrance during the summer to keep the hive cool, but I neglected to close it when the weather started to turn. The opening is just too big to patrol in the fall. Mice are another possibility, but I didn't see any evidence of a mouse nest or mouse poo inside -- of course, I stayed toward the back of the hive, not wanting to disturb the cluster, so maybe a more thorough check is needed. If there are mice, the entrance is closed up now, so they're not getting out until spring.
In the past, I've tried feeding over winter in various ways:
- Fondant, which got soft and melted into a puddle in the bottom of the hive
- Sugar piled on paper or cardboard in the bottom of the hive, which became messy and sticky as the sugar absorbed moisture in the hives and melted
- Sugar bricks hung between bars in mesh bags, but lots of bees climbed through the holes and couldn't get out
- Empty combs filled with sugar. That worked out amazingly well actually. The combs held the sugar beautifully in a place where the bees could reach them. The sugar also absorbed moisture in the hive. The downside was that I had to refill the combs periodically, and I didn't like having the hives open in the dead of winter.
This year, I'm experimenting with something new. I picked up some disposable aluminum baking pans at the grocery store. I don't remember the exact dimensions, but in terms of width and height, they fit very well standing up in my hives. (Just a little bit of space around the edges.) The containers are deep enough to hold about 6 lbs of sugar in the form of sugar bricks.* Also, because the sides of the pans are sloped (so that it's trapezoidal), when I stand them up on end, they tilt backward a little bit, sort of like a cell in a honey comb. Since white sugar is hygroscopic, my fingers are crossed that it will absorb moisture in the hive. However, as the sugar bricks Hopefully, if the sugar bricks start to soften up, that bit of slope will keep them in the container rather than falling out into the bottom of the hive. (Dang, I really wish my phone hadn't fallen into a bowl of water because I had photos.)
|Crude illustration of how the tilted pan will hopefully keep sugar inside|
Also, added a cover to the bottom fourth of the pan to help keep sugar inside.
So here is the quick and dirty on each colony. Blue = Hopeful they'll pull through. Orange = I think they have a 50/50 chance. Red = Not holding my breath.
- Elsa -- Has at least 15 bars, but only about 1/2 full. Will need to keep an eye on her over winter to make sure she doesn't starve.
- Austeja -- Donated 2 bars from this hive to Peach. Currently has 15/16 bars. Looks good
- Hippolyte -- Decapitated, drowned bees. Had stopped taking syrup. Fed her, but not feeling good about this situation.
- Persephone -- I rated this one orange only because I couldn't check her. Crikey, she's a mean one. Stuffed her with straw, but she was attacking me so viciously I forgot to give her a sugar brick or even check on her stores. She's so contrary, I expect her to survive, but if she doesn't make it through winter, that's fine with me. I can't figure her out. She was perfectly nice before I transferred her to this hive. Maybe residual pheromones from the previous colony have made her so bitter.
- Peach -- Received 2 bars from Austeja, but I don't think she ever really recovered from the robbing this fall. Added a sugar brick, but I don't think she's going to pull through.
- Buttercup -- 12 bars fully capped. Looking good. Added some sugar for insurance.
- Bubblegum -- Bees very busy in the back of the hive even on a 35-ish degree day. Popped in a sugar brick, but they look good.
- Celestia -- Makeshift cover had shifted, and there were lots of drowned bees. Not hopeful, but I mopped up the water and added a sugar brick. Fingers crossed because I really liked this colony.
Looking at this color-coding, I'd be happy if just half of the colonies survive winter. I'd like to do some work on the hive bodies next year, and it would be nice to do that while they're empty. Plus, it would give me space to split. But who knows. Maybe the winter will be mild, and the bees will surprise me. Last fall, there were 3 colonies that I felt sort of iffy about, but 2 of them still survived. For such small creatures, they're much hardier than they appear.
*Sugar bricks -- Basically, 6 lbs sugar mixed with 1 to 1.25 cups of water/bee tea -- just enough liquid to hold the sugar together. Sugar is packed into a mold and allowed to harden up overnight.