Winter will officially be over in a couple of days, and I’m glad for it: this has been one of the coldest winters I can remember for some time. Not just cold now and then, but long, deep cold that chilled us all to the bone. We had one of our coldest days (about 15 degrees) just two weeks ago. But the weather is finally warming, the sun is shining, and flowers are beginning to But the weather is finally warming, the sun is shining, and flowers are beginning to bloom. Only days after our coldest day, the temperature was in the 60s and the bees were very active. Many bees were so laden with pollen, they had trouble landing on the entrance. Several bees were so coated with bright yellow pollen, I couldn’t see their stripes. The agarita bushes that grow wild across our back property and full of fragrant yellow blooms. The scent reminded me of the delicious fruity taste of last spring’s honey crop.
Last winter was so warm, the queen in hive 1 was able to keep laying throughout most of the season, resulting in serious overcrowding and several swarms. I wanted to avoid that this winter and, not knowing how cold it was going to get, decided to experiment with space. On hive 1, I left a half-full super of honey directly over the hive body. On hive 2, I put an empty super between the hive body and a half-full super of honey. I quickly realized that was too much space. We had a hard freeze in December and freezing temperatures for several days. When I had an opportunity to check the hive again, hive 2 had lots of dead bees: they were unable to get through all the space into the warmth of the hive body. So, I removed the empty super.
In the fall build-up, the queen stopped laying brood in the top brood chamber, and confined her egg-laying to the hive body in the bottom box. All the cells in the top box were back-filled with honey. As winter progressed, the brood hatched, the queen slowed her egg-laying (or stops completely when it’s very cold) and the bees focused on keeping warm. On cold days, I frequently would visit the bee yard to press my ear against the hive and listen to the hum. Many beekeepers remove all the supers, leaving only the honey stored in the hive body. But I wanted to make sure the girls had plenty for the winter.
It wasn’t warm enough again for another hive check until late January. Neither hive had any brood, but their honey stores were good. I checked again in February, but still no brood. Bees only live for about three months, and I was beginning to worry the queen wouldn’t be able to replenish the population before the brood from November started dying off. I was so pleased on our mid-March inspection to find both queens were laying and had at least two frames of capped brood.
Last spring, I did what many beekeepers do and reversed the bottom two boxes. This is because all the brood that hatched in late fall and early winter left empty cells and the bees had moved up in the hive. The belief is that by reversing the boxes, the majority of the population will be moved to the bottom of the hive and they will naturally guide the queen to start laying in those empty cells above them and gives them a feeling of spaciousness so they’ll be less inclined to swarm. That’s not how it happened with my hive though. Instead, they backfilled all those empty cells with honey, cramped themselves in with all that honey, then swarmed because they were cramped, all resulting in the population never growing to be as strong as it was the first year. Some beekeepers are abandoning this practice because it’s easy to accidentally kill the queen during the move and bees are very efficient at managing themselves. I’ve decided not to reverse the boxes this year. I’m hoping they will guide the queen down when the weather warms up and I’ll have two strong hives.
For now, I’m so glad both hives survived. I’m scheduled to pick up a box of bees and two new queens the second weekend in April. I’m replacing the queen in hive 2 because that hive is very aggressive, messy, and she’s not been a good layer. A new queen should resolve those problems. I’m also starting a new hive with the box of bees, and, assuming there is enough brood to share, will split hive 1. That will give me four hives for my growing apiary. April 11 should be an exciting day since Hial will be at a shooting competition, so I’ll have to do the installation and split on my own. He’s not only my cameraman, but also the brawn of the operation. Those big boxes often weight close to 100 pounds, so I may have to get creative.