Lynn from Razzberry Corners asked me the other day what our honeybees are up to in winter.
Well, for starters, the hives are wrapped up! There are different ways of wrapping hives in winter. Some people just use a sort of black roofing paper. We bought two insulated "Bee Cozies." There is also a "pillow" of insulation that goes under the lid of the hive. Wrapping the hives protects the bees from wind and keeps them a bit warmer. (Some people don't wrap in winter and their bees do fine.) The colder it gets, the harder the bees have to work to stay warm, and the more honey they need to eat to do it. We like to give them a little help to get through the Canadian winter! There is always a risk of your honeybees starving to death if they don't have enough honey stored in the hive to get them through to spring.
Chickens and honeybees can co-exist quite peacefully, even in summer. In winter, the chickens don't even know the bees are there!
This photo is from last summer, but at this time of the year, the honeybees are usually inside the hive. When it gets cold enough, they form a winter cluster (which expands and contracts somewhat according to outside temperature.) The queen is at the centre of this cluster, and the rest of the bees take turns being on the colder outer edges. The bees manage to generate enough heat to keep the temperature in the hive surprisingly warm. I have read different things about what the actual temperature is, but the centre of the cluster will be around 80 - 90 degrees F.
Being fastidious, honeybees will not relieve themselves within the hive. They wait for a relatively warm, sunny winter day and zip out of the hive for a quick "cleansing flight." If a honeybee stays out too long, she risks getting chilled, which renders her unable to fly. She then drops to the ground and dies.
During the cold months, the cluster works its way through the hive, devouring honey. The bees are not particularly active in winter, but they don't hibernate. They do, however, sleep! The Brookfield Farms Bees & Honey blog has a great post about how and when bees sleep.
When spring is in the air, the queen starts laying eggs for a new generation of bees.
Bees die off in winter for various reasons. It is normal to lose some bees, and the worker bees will push the corpses out onto the landing board of the hive on days when it's not too cold, just as they do in the warmer months. If outdoor conditions are warm enough, an "undertaker" honeybee will fly off with a corpse and dump it somewhere away from the hive. And sick and/or dying bees will often haul themselves out of the hive, dropping kamikaze-like off the edge of the landing board to the ground.
Entire hives can and do perish in the cold. I was told that around here, beekeepers can expect to lose 30% of their hives in an average winter. I'm hoping not to lose any, since I only have two hives! But you never know. Last fall I gave my bees various treatment to prevent mites and certain diseases from killing them off over winter, and I did my best to ensure they have adequate food supplies to see them through until spring. (I fed them sugar syrup to supplement their natural foraging.) Now I'm just crossing my fingers, occasionally clearing dead bees out of the hive entrances, which sometimes get a big clogged with bodies in cold weather. I know both my hives are still alive right now, because I can hear the girls buzzing inside. On warm sunny days, I have seen them flying in and out.
Bees can withstand a fair bit of cold, but they cannot tolerate moisture, so it's very important that the hives have ventilation in winter. My hives have open bottom and top entrances, and are slightly tilted forward so that any excess moisture drains out. The bees create a surprising amount of moisture in there when they heat the hive!
So cross your fingers, and I'll let you know how the girls do in the coming months. I really hope the hives make it. We'd like to add two more hives this year.
Yesterday, I finally cleaned the dregs out last fall's honey buckets. (Yes, I am slow! Although I have a pail opener, I needed the brute force of my hubby to get the lids off.) I managed to scrape out a kilogram of granulated goldenrod honey that I will keep for myself. It smells and tastes wonderful. I don't sell my honey in mason jars (that's frowned upon) but I put my own honey, and gift honey, in them...
Here's a jar of the dregs, with today's breakfast and the honeypot I bought from Abby T Pottery on Etsy last year. Granola, yogurt, banana and a dollop of honey...yum!
This morning I didn't have the "dregs" honey! No, this is liquid gold from our first 2010 crop, which was mainly basswood and fantastically delicate and delicious. When I took a sample to our local beekeepers' meeting, a few of the older beekeepers told me it was "award-winning." Not that I can take any credit; the bees do all the work. But my massage therapist bought the entire case of basswood honey I had for sale (we only harvested about 30 lbs of the first crop.) I made sure to keep a jar for us.
I never used to like honey all that much (apart from in baking and cooking) before I started keeping bees, but now I eat it straight up all the time. There is no comparison between unpasteurized, strained raw honey and the blended, pasteurized stuff you get at the supermarket.
That's not to say all supermarket honey is bad, but it's important to know what you're buying. In this country, you can have an appallingly low amount of Canadian honey blended with imported stuff, yet still be allowed to label it as "Canada No. 1." We have a local apiary, Levac's, that uses only Canadian honey (mostly local) and puts out a much better product than those huge producers I shall not name. Their product is also certified kosher!
And did you know that the reason producers pasteurize honey is not because of germ issues (honey is naturally sterile), but to prevent granulation, which is a purely aesthetic issue? They also use pressure filtration. All of these things affect the taste and quality of honey. Honey is delicate in its way, and if you overheat it (as with pasteurization), you will kill off various enzymes and other natural things, changing the taste of the honey. Some people argue it also negates the health benefits of honey. All I can say is that I've tasted pasteurized, blended supermarket honey, and I've tasted my own honey, and there is NO COMPARISON. Local honey has beautiful subtleties in taste that no mass-produced blended product can ever match!
As for granulation, if it bothers you, you can gently heat the honey to restore it to its liquid state. It's best to do this with small amounts of honey. Put it in a container that you can immerse in hot tap water, and leave it in warm water until the honey re-liquifies. If you are gentle with honey, it will retain all its wonderful qualities for an indefinite amount of time!