Preparing Bees for a Blizzard

It’s the calm before the storm, quite literally, in the above picture I took at sunrise this morning.  A blizzard isn’t just about the snow but also the high winds that blow snow causing lack of visibility.  In this case along with those estimated 35mph winds, 18-24 inches of snow is forecast for our area.  That’s a lot for Maryland at one time so I’m taking precautions.  Along with the list of household items to prepare for such a storm, my beehives need consideration.  Extra resources in the form of sugar, sugar candy and pollen patties were added earlier in the week so I’ve done what I can there.  But wind is a concern.  Next year, the coop will serve as a good wind break.  For now, the basic structure as it stands will likely help as well.  While I always keep bricks on top of the outer covers to keep the wind from lifting them off and allowing rain, snow or other weather into the hives, exposing them to whatever elements are there, I don’t feel like it’s enough with the high winds of a blizzard so we strapped the lids onto the hive stands to be more secure.

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Hives strapped down to protect them from the high winds predicted.  If the outer cover (lid) came off, the bees would likely die quite quickly from the snow entering the hive and the extreme cold that would rush inside.  The outer cover not only keeps them dry but also helps keep the warm air the bees generate with their wings inside of the hive. 

I was thrilled to hear my husband exclaim that he could hear them as we worked together to put on those straps (or rather, as he put them on and I just watched).  I put my ear to the side and could hear them buzzing along loudly, generating warmth, protecting their brood with that heat and keeping their cluster alive- teamwork.  What really thrilled me was that they were lower in the hives than I thought, hopefully representing food resources still available to them.  As bees make their way through winter, they tend to move up the hive, eating as they go so when they are located in the top box it’s often thought that they’ve depleted their food supply and must get supplemental help from us.  On warm winter days, they will move around and regroup so to speak, exploring what’s available, moving closer to honey and making needed adjustments.

Next year, I’m going to explore making fondant which is much like the fondant you may be familiar with from cakes, a flat, pliable sugary topping, but made at home I can control what goes into it.   A big advantage to using a fondant is since it’s thin and pliable you can theoretically quickly open up the hive in cold weather and place it where the cluster is located, making sure the food is accessible to them where they are when it’s so cold.  The fondant can be maneuvered into small, tight spaces whereas sugar candy really can’t since it’s so hard.  I needed to add a shim (a 1/2″ piece of wood in the same dimensions as a box that provides height) to accommodate the candy and the pollen patty that I added this past week.

With what I’ve done, placing the resources up top under the outer cover, accessibility to resources may be limited when it’s cold if the bees are further down into the hive which could result in them starving despite having food available because they can’t move to where the food is without breaking cluster.  Clustering is an example of great teamwork.  The bees group together almost like a ball of bees, fanning their wings and maintaining a desired temperature, somewhere in the mid 90 degree range, not just to keep themselves alive, but also to raise brood, ever looking forward and preparing for the future.  The bees on the inside of the cluster can move and eat and also stay the warmest, so periodically, they rotate so the outermost bees that are not as warm, can move inside the cluster to warm and eat.  Individually they can’t garner enough heat needed on a really cold day to survive but clustered together, they have a great impact.

With so many bees in the top most box the other day, I thought they had eaten their way up so that’s why I chose to do what I did and I didn’t want to open them further in the winter risking exposing them to the cold or chilling the brood which could kill it.  That’s just me, I’m still a young beekeeper with much to learn.  I know a master beekeeper who opens his hives even in the coldest of weather to check on the location of his cluster with resources in hand if needed.  I’m not so brave; I know the risks either way.  I’ve lost hives to starvation in the past, opening them up in the spring to find plenty of honey, but dead, frozen bees.  It’s a heartbreaking sight especially when you see that there was plenty of honey had they been able to get to it.  I believe my volume of bees this year is great, so I’m hoping my strategy helps them, my ultimate goal as a beekeeper being to help, not to try to do for them what they know how to do better than me .  I did hear bees in those top boxes along with the hum of bees further down, so I presume there to be strength in numbers.

After the storm, it will be vital to get out and clear snow from the front of the hives, clearing their entrance, always allowing ventilation and the ability to get out and back in should they need to make cleansing flights when temperatures a bit after it stops snowing.  My kids find cleansing flights to be fascinating.  Last year, we checked on the bees after a big storm and much to his delight, my son immediately saw the pee dots in the snow after we shoveled a path through very deep snow to get to our hives.

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Pee droplets in the snow from cleansing flights.
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One of the girls reentering her hive after a cleansing flight.

Next year, I’ll have the needs of chickens to consider as well.  For now, we are grateful to have a warm home and the presence of our family as we watch the snow begin to fall.   The bees have caused me to notice more than just my immediate surroundings during times like this.  I like to observe nature and to see how animals experience different elements.  I’m amazed at how brilliantly honey bees weather storms of any magnitude by working as a cohesive unit, sometimes until the very end, but always believing they can as they have for thousands of years.  I love their resilience but I hope my wintering bees are strong enough in number, health and resources this year that it’s not so much of a struggle and that this spring doesn’t just bring the joy of little chicks to raise, but likewise new baby bees to pollinate and buzz around us.

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