This post is our first participation in the Renegade Farmer Farmhouse Festival Fridays. Click on over to find more Friday farming posts!
As February begins, we’re officially entering the new beekeeping season, our second season (or first full one depending on how you look at it!) All of the experts we consulted with last year as we were getting started said more or less the same thing – the first summer should be really easy and successful, then you close up the box for the winter and hope the bees are still there in February! How scary….after the work and expense of getting into beekeeping, they could all be gone in a few short months for any number of reasons.
The two easiest ways to lose your hive during this time are from starvation (they didn’t make or you didn’t leave them enough honey to get through the winter) and varroa mites. Varroa mites attach themselves to honeybees and literally suck the life from them – like microscopic vampires. The biggest problem is that mite populations spike at the same time honeybee populations decline each year (late summer / early fall) so the colony is just not strong enough to combat the massive onslaught of mites. Sure enough, we went from seeing only a few mites on our bottom board to a significant increase between August and October. We treated with Apiguard, a thymol based gel that the bees carry around the hive while cleaning that helps to control the mites and it appears to have been successful since there are still bees flying in and out of the hive.
We’ve done nothing more with the hive since October since the bees seal up all the cracks and close the lid with propolis to keep their home as warm and dry as possible through the winter. We’ve had such a mild winter that every time we’ve inspected the hive from the outside, we’ve seen plenty of bees flying, and some returning with pollen – which is a great sign! Pollen is the protein source for the honeybee diet (they get their carbs from the honey) so if they still have plenty of stored honey and are foraging for pollen, we don’t need to supplement them with sugar water or pollen patties for the time being.
Once the winter solstice has passed, the colony begins preparing for the next season by preparing brood nests and by February, new baby bees are beginning to replace their older sisters that have sustained the colony all winter. Here in California, the timing is perfect as I’ve just read in the past few days that the almond trees have begun to bloom – and they need bees to be pollinated! If the blooms in our immediate area really get going, we could even need to put a honey super on this month (another box of honey comb for the bees to store honey in). If windy and rainy weather comes back for extended periods of time in the spring though, we will have to start feeding them extra as they will deplete their winter stores – especially with their larger populations – and they won’t be able to forage.
So we’re about to crack the lid of the hive signifying the end of winter (for the bees) and the start of a new season. We hope to actually harvest some honey this year and are discussing adding another hive to the farm. We also think that we feel comfortable enough to catch a swarm (well, Dennis feels comfortable enough) so we may have as many as three hives by summertime….stay tuned.
For all of you wannabe beekeepers out there, I’m happy to report that our first year has so far been a success and I would encourage you to jump in! Now is the time to reserve a package of bees for delivery in the next few months. Sign up for beekeeping classes, read every book you can get your hands on and find yourself a mentor. Our local association, the Sacramento Area Beekeepers Association, assigned one to us and he has been only a phone call or email away when we’ve been standing over the hive worrying over something.