It’s official: I overwintered all my colonies once again. In fact, in seven of the last ten years I managed to pull every single colony through the bleak northwest winter. Having said that, the questions I’m asked are always the same: “What mite meds do you use?” “How long do you feed?” “What is your winter configuration?” All these queries presume that there is some magic trick to overwintering. If you only buy the right stuff, you will have no more bee problems.
The questions remind me of photography. Every time someone takes a truly outstanding photograph, people ask, “What camera did you use?” as if the camera went out and took pictures by itself. The photographer wasn’t sitting in the mud, all scrunched down at bug level, sweltering in the sun, and not breathing lest he produce carbon dioxide. He didn’t take 853 shots and discard 852 of them. He didn’t spend the next three days charging all the batteries he drained that afternoon. And he didn’t drive 349 miles and burn untold gallons of fuel to get to the place with all the right bugs.
You need to do the work
Like good photographers, good beekeepers actually do the work. Overwintering a bunch of honey bees is an art form. To me, it is amazing that any bug—not in a state of diapause or quiescence—can actually make it through such a long period of incarceration. I think we should be more surprised by colonies that make it than by those that don’t.
But in deference to those who want to know how to overwinter, I had a long think over it. I know what has vastly increased my chances of overwintering—things like moisture quilts and no-cook candy boards. My system evolved over a number of years and weathered many naysayers. I read books and asked question of engineers and architects about how things work in enclosed spaces, things like airflow, ventilation, heat loss, and condensation. Then I asked questions of biologists about nutrition and entomologists about diseases and vectors.
I designed my overwintering system based on science, and so far at least, it works like a charm. But you can’t expect the same system to work for you any more than you can expect the same camera to take identical pictures. It’s not so much what you use, but how you use it.
Furthermore, what is necessary for me here in soggy western Washington doesn’t hold true in eastern Washington or in western Oregon…or anywhere else. Everything depends on local conditions.
The thing I do differently
However, having fulminated over the question “How do you do it?” for days on end, I did come up with one thing I do differently than most beekeepers, or at least differently from the ones I hear about. I was reminded of it again this morning as I was reading through my inbox. A beekeeper wrote that she couldn’t remove the mite strips on time because of the weather. That mindset, the “I couldn’t because,” is the major overwintering problem.
The thing I do differently is simple: I never procrastinate. If something needs to be done for my bees, I do it. And soon. Do you recall the words inscribed on the old post office building in New York, now zip code 10001? It reads, “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”
Think about that. When the post office actually lived by those words, everyone got his mail on time. Now that the post office is afraid of a little weather, no one gets anything on time. Not only that, we have phrases like “going postal” that aren’t all that favorable to the post office.
But back to honey bees. If something needs to be done, neither snow nor torrential rain nor gale-force winds nor foot-long icicles should stay the beekeeper from his duties.
Years ago a wizened old beekeeper told me that keeping bees doesn’t take much time, but the things that must be done, must be done on time. That simple idea became my beekeeping mantra, and I believe that ethic, more than anything else, has helped me to be successful.
If it needs to be done, do it
For those of you who read this site regularly, this is old news. Although I preach it constantly, that doesn’t slow the flow of emails that are all basically the same. “I needed to feed my bees, but it was too cold, so I waited and they died.” So instead of sacrificing a few, you decided to kill the whole thing? “I needed to split the hive but it was too windy. Next day they swarmed and I lost them.” So instead of losing a few bees, you lost a whole swarm? “The mites were really bad, but I couldn’t treat because of the rain. Now they’re all dead.” And what? You’re surprised?
Excuses, excuses. Get real folks. If it needs to be done, do it. I don’t give a rip if it’s freezing, pouring, boiling, or blowing. If it needs to be done, do it. Yes, you may lose some bees, but you won’t lose all the bees. That’s the point. Admittedly, I cut some slack for people living at forty below because, at those temperatures, you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t. But if that’s not you, you don’t have an excuse.
Whose welfare are you worried about?
I think the excuses are more about beekeeper comfort than bee husbandry. I know the feeling. It’s miserably cold. You don’t want to go outside and feed a colony. So instead of doing it, you convince yourself that it would be bad for the bees to lift the lid and slide in some fondant. So you wait another day. And then another. And another. Until they’re dead.
So next time you’re tempted to think it’s too cold, too hot, too wet, too Tuesday, too Christmas, or too late remember the post office—the old post office—and get out there and tend your bees.
That, in a nutshell, is how I overwintered all my colonies this year and in many of the preceding years. There is nothing magic, no secret formula, no incantations, just dogged persistence and attention to detail. As I always say, your bees will do the hard part, you just have to do your part—and do it on time.
Honey Bee Suite