Report from the 47th parallel

After the recent cold snap, which lasted about two weeks, I checked my hives with trepidation. I’ve been beekeeping long enough that I shouldn’t be anxious, right? Wrong. I was nervous as a cat, wondering how many colonies I lost.

The day before the cold weather was due, I took the unusual precaution of giving sugar to all my colonies—just in case. I decided on sugar supplement because of the lingering warm weather that kept my bees foraging for pollen until late November. After all, there’s nothing like flying bees to burn through winter stores, so I decided to feed. Hive by hive, I added a tray of sugar and a Varroa drawer under the screened bottoms.

Two colonies were worrisome. One, a huge triple-deep colony, was already at the top of the hive, so I figured it could be out of food. The other was a summer swarm, about grapefruit size, in the lower left corner of a double medium hive—too small for so much cold.

During the next two weeks—which some people say was the longest continuous period of freezing weather we’ve had in twenty years—I didn’t go near my hives. Out of sight, out of mind. Sort of.

Then, when time came to count my losses, I tried to be philosophical. Instead, this is what I found:

    • The grapefruit was still there, humming in a very un-grapefruit-like way.
    • The large colony near the top exploded out of the hive when I popped the lid. One bee got under my coat and tattooed my stomach. Another autographed my wrist. The sugar was about ten percent gone.
    • All the other colonies were hunkered down inside their hives, purring contentedly.

Relief washed over me . . . no losses so far. What surprised me, though, is that except for the one hive, the sugar was untouched, which means the honey stores are holding out.

Now I am counting down to the winter solstice—just three more days of diminishing daylight. You are right, I talk about the solstice a lot, but up here on the 47th parallel, you really notice the interminable darkness. On rainy days—which are most—daylight is scarce and no snow reflects the paltry light. The world is a cave.

So today I’m baking Christmas cookies, trying to set up a new computer (freaking over Windows 8.1), and thinking about bug portraiture. I’m also thinking (gratefully) about my many readers and wishing you, your families, and your insects all the best this holiday season.

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  • I’m glad to hear your bees are well. I haven’t peeked at my own since the cold really hit, though a couple of weeks ago, when the weather hit 50 all three colonies seemed to be active.

    We’ll be having friends over for a Solstice bonfire. (After all, the pagans believed that a good party helped convince the sun to return.) And then the families will gather together for Christmas. After that, it’s time for dormancy and philosophical optimism about spring’s return.

    Happy holidays to all.

  • Great! Glad they are all doing so well. I am taking your advice on SBB, I will get some, figured there must be some out there I could close off the bottom to, there are. During the freeze we had some negative temps at night, and nothing over 20 degrees in the daytime. Thank goodness it doesn’t last that long here. Every winter we usually get a week or two like that, then daytime temps go above 35. I am relaxing today, getting over a flu. Quite a bothersome thing, I haven’t had any flu for at least 9 years.

    Take care and thanks for all the food info!

  • Hello,
    I checked my two hived as well, considering it was -21 F yesterday. I didn’t open them up, just used the wife’s meat thermometer. Got a 34 F reading, so there is something creating heat.

  • I loaded up my six hives with raw sugar a couple weeks ago and we’ve been in a bone-chilling cold spell ever since. A colony in a three-deep hive clustered over the top bars since before I added the sugar (I think a mouse might be in the hive, but I’m not sure what I can do about it now). I’m considering adding another load of sugar to it, dumping in as much as I can, just to be safe. Another colony is clustered near the top bars, but the rest are so far down I barely see the cluster from up top. So they’re good.

    But it doesn’t take much to worry when you know some of the colonies might be low on honey, does it? Do you ever lay in bed at night and worry? I do. I hate it when that happens.

    Can a colony live through an entire winter on sugar alone?

    • Phillip,

      I have seen colonies make it on sugar alone through the entire winter. I don’t understand it, though.

  • I made Christmas treats for my bees, worrying along the same line. It is basically hard sugar candy with a little bit of pollen substitute dissolved and poured into muffin forms. They should fit nicely under the quilt-box burlap. 🙂 After the solstice, a pollen content of the treat should be helpful with ever increasing brood requirements.

  • I did not fair so well. My prize hive, that was so strong through out the summer and into the fall did not make it. Despite my best efforts, the varroa was strong and I was collecting them on the bottom board below the screen right till the end.

    After the frost, I felt it deep inside my heart that something was wrong. I open up the hive on a nice day only to find the number of bees diminished and a small cluster froze to death. The honey stocks were plenty full. The hive had a diminished number of bees that last few weeks of November. I can’t explain, but something went amis.

    No foul brood, plenty of honey, just a rapid loss of bees at the end and gone. So sad.

    • Harold,

      A small cluster with lots of honey stores is nearly always a sign of Varroa. Usually, the healthy bees just keep pulling out the dead bees until the colony is too small or too weak to keep warm. Colonies like this usually collapse in late fall/early winter because that is when there is the largest number of mites per bee in the colony. For next year, you need to review your mite protocol and do something different.

      • On Long Island, NY the Varroa is pretty strong and I have heard that a number of hives have already collapsed like my hive.

        In the spring I am getting a nuc to get an earlier start. I will be much more aggressive in Varroa control, especially in the fall.

        You pegged it right on, the bees were busy doing funeral duty. Not pretty.

  • Glad your hives are all still alive and active. As you are describing each colony, it still amazes me how different colonies can progress.

    I saw it 1st hand with my parent’s hives where they started the hives at the exact same time. Got starter bees, brood frames, and queens from the same guy. And from the get-go, one hive was always stronger. The strong hive grew into 2 deeps and 3 mediums by July. The other hive I don’t believe had filled out 1 medium by that same time. They added a 2nd medium but the bees never did anything with it, so it got removed.

    Maybe I’m just thinking like a newbie, but the diversity in what should be identical hives proves out to not be…and these are bees that presumably were the same breed, same environment, same care, but one queen just shined and the other didn’t really do much.

    My guess is the strong hive won’t fare nearly as well next year. From what I’ve heard, queens only have about 1 super-productive season in them, and even if they live for 3-5 years, they never lay as many eggs in subsequent years.

    One beekeeper told me that it’s his regular practice to pinch his queens every year and replace them so he can get another queen to perpetuate that strong hive AND do so with an established colony. But he’s bee keeping as a business, not as a hobby. At present, I don’t plan to sell honey. I just want to be a beekeeper. And what I do harvest will be for my own enjoyment and to have something unique to give away to friends and family at Christmas & birthdays.

    BTW for those in the know, please correct me or point out if I’ve said something that needs technical correction/clarification or is just not accurate. I am a newbie…

  • How encouraging your post is. I have many dead bees in front of my hive. After I swept off the landing today, I rechecked a couple of hours later and there were more dead bees.It was cold and very windy, but I will go into the hive tomorrow which is supposed to be warmer. This hive was a power house, and a fellow beekeeper assures me these are just overflow. But I am worried about what I will find tomorrow and wondering what I will do. So your post gave me much hope.

    • Ann,

      Dead bees on the landing board like that means the colony is doing what it is supposed to do. Removing dead bees is important for the health of the colony. A few bodies on the landing board every day is a very good sign.

  • Merry Christmas to you and your bees.

    I checked my bees yesterday when it got up to 65 degrees. They were out flying around and somehow were bringing in pollen still. Not a bunch but they were finding some. Unfortunately I got called out of town to work so I was not able to check on their food stores. I will do that tomorrow if I make it home.

    I am not a fan of Windows 8 either.

    • Robert,

      Funny, my one little comment brought Windows 8 detractors out of the woodwork. My e-mail is full.

  • Glad to hear it. I lost a colony to (apparently) chilled brood. We had a cold snap in late October, and altho I used the Varroa boards and windbreaks, it seems there just weren’t enough summer foragers left, to keep the brood warm. Sad, to see fully-developed workers dead in their cells.

    If it does get up into 50s today, I’ll be redistributing their honey frames to the surviving colonies.

    Have a warm safe holiday and winter season, and best wishes to all your readers and their insects too!

    Shady Grove Farm
    Corinth, KY

  • I grew up on the 60th parallel, so I can empathize with you counting days to the winter solstice. I remember doing the same during long (or rather short) winter days. Where I live now we have cold weather too. This morning, for example, we had a cold snap with lows all the way down in the 50s. Sorry, I couldn’t resist. Florida can be nice in that sense in the wintertime, although I wouldn’t mind some snow especially around Christmas time.

    • Wow, 60th, that’s dark. Trouble here is that we hardly ever have snow, just rain, which can get to you sometimes.

    • Phillip,

      It’s a sphere, my dear.

      St. Johns, New. Found. Land. is 47.56° N.
      Olympia, WA is 47.04° N.

      But, yes, you are a half-degree north of me. That counts.

  • Happy to report that all is well in my hive. Last year, I turned 74 y/o and downsized my hives medium supers, replacing the deeps. So going into the winter this year I had 4 medium supers. I opened it up today, and the top super had a very small cluster, all dead. I took that super off. But the main cluster was in the lower to supers, and it looked great. I left a couple of pollen patties, and gave them some sugar. Thanks for your post, because it prompted me to take a peek. I am one happy lady tonight.

    • Nick,

      Yummy. Wow, so many bees (and people) live in the north country. I haven’t heard a peep from down under though, where they are enjoying the longest day of the year.

  • Happy first day of winter ! Shortest day of the year. My birthday. I remember hearing the old timers say, ” As the days begin to lengthen, the cold begins to strengthen”. I live on the 35th parallel so my winter days are not as short as yours.
    Thank You for all the hard work you put into your web-site.

  • So here on the east coast of our great nation it is 12:11 the official beginning of winter in the northern hemisphere…..I have never noted it before but in my many trips around Ol Sol….Happy Winter Rusty

  • Rusty – Happy Holidays!

    Its 68 Degrees in NJ. We have 22D maybe last week. Had same emotions as you as I saw the 2 colonies survived and they are bzzzzzing out today.

    I had a wierd question…trying to craft the ‘moisture trap’ you had developed. I am thinking about if I used a typical top feeder…cover the bottom with a cloth/muslin and stuff it with wood-chips. Would that work you think? Lazzines is the mother of all inventions : ). Just wondering if you think this should work in principle.

    Thanks again.


    • Hafiz,

      I don’t know what you mean by “typical top feeder.” Do you mean a feeder rim? Most top feeders have solid bottoms, which wouldn’t work.

  • Rusty,
    I’m a newbie hear in Helena, Montana and I was just reading your posts from this past winter. Is it feasible to use something like a straw bale cold frame? For example: “The Barn” pic located at this web site…
    Of course in Montana I would preferably use old glass windows or doors to maximize light and warmth. But, my thought is that my girls are more protected from the elements and at least able to get out to do their business.
    This past winter we stayed at minus twenty for nearly a month and up to minus forty at night. Even for the rest of my feathered and fury farm animals, those temps were a struggle to live. I have Italians and in reading a few of you other writings I’m already looking at a disadvantage due to the breed. Though it’s only May, my mind is already preparing for winter 2014-15 and I wish I had found your web site last year. Thank you so much for all of the excellent information.


    • John,

      Any kind of arrangement to insulate or lessen the wind is a good idea in a cold climate. The trick is to never lead the bees to believe that it is warmer than it actually is. Bees thinking it is warm when it’s not can freeze to death before they get back. Usually it’s not a problem unless you are actually adding heat. But to insulate and break the wind with straw bales or old windows is perfectly fine.