Sometimes farming can throw you little surprises to brighten a day of drudgery tasks. With the latest thaw, the paths and lanes have been reduced to slush, the grainy snow sliding in rumbling, crumbling sheets off metal roofs (just after you walked by), and the coops are turned to boggy sogginess. The start of mud season has begun.
After chores were finished, Mom and I tackled the ever-so-lovely task of cleaning out the turkey coop amidst cabin-fever turkey hens and toms. Since they would be under our watchful supervision, I let the turks out into their snow-laden pen (with its mesh still buried underneath somewhere), and they climbed and clamored like eager school children at recess.
Scoop the buckets full, load them on the sled, and slop-slop our way to the dump pile for spring spreading. Then it’s drag them back again and scoop some more. The sun is shining, and it’s really quite warm out. We’ve both shed our coats and hats, and a light breeze teases our frizzing hair.
“Ach,” Mom cries, waving her hand by her head as we dump another load of filled buckets onto the pile. “A fly! Not a fly already!”
But it was a little bit later as we were back working at the turkey coop, I noticed, “Mom, that’s not a fly. I think you heard a honey bee, and it’s still in your hair!”
We tease the little, furry creature from her salt-and-pepper tangle, and it crawls about on my finger. A honeybee! With all these endless and long spells of twenty-below temperatures, I had written off the colony as frozen solid. Having kept bees on the farm since 2003, only mild winters had seen colony survival, despite insulating the hive and other precautions.
This last fall, though, our one surviving colony (we lost the second one early in the season due to a bummer queen), had entered the winter strong, full of honey and as much concentrated sugar water as the bees would take as extra feed. With one deep hive body and two shallows, they had plenty of room to pack it in—and barely enough room to fit all the bees.
On top of the hive, we place a moisture-reducing system made by Smarter Bee that is built into a shallow hive body. With a cloth and screen barrier between the hive and the moisture reducer (so the bees are kept safely below), a convex piece of thin metal sheeting acts to collect moisture from the hive that rises through the cloth barrier. The drips condense in small troughs on each side and then exit the hive through poly tubing. Holding too much moisture in a hive can lead to an array of diseases and chilling as the water drips back onto the bees, but the moisture reducer helps to alleviate these problems all winter.
We then wrapped the whole kit in pink house insulation, like a big marshmallow, then wrapped that in tar paper (as a wind and moisture barrier as well as the blackness helps capture solar warmth) like a pudgy Christmas package with a notch cut out at the hive entrance. We wished the bees well, then watched the snow pile high on top and around the back sides. The sunny days this winter helped keep the south and eastern sides free of snow and the entrance open.
Usually, I make a habit of traipsing out to the hive nearly every week during the winter. But with all the cold (meaning I didn’t want to have to stay out any longer than necessary due to threat of frost bite) and the deep snow (out there I really would have sunk out of sight), it just didn’t happen. But when that one little honey bee flew into Mom’s hair, we both knew we had to get out to the hive and see what was happening.
Another beekeeping friend from town had reported his hive had died of the cold way back in January. I certainly hadn’t any expectations that my one lone hive in the snowbank was going to pull through. But as we waded through the hip-deep mashed-potato snow to the apiary, our thoughts bounced from hope to dread. There is no fun and glory in cleaning out a dead hive in the spring, crusted with shattered bee parts and white furry mold growing in the corners.
The bottom entrance had crusted over, and as I worked it free with a twig, there was no activity. And yet, a few more bees were hovering about. Where were they coming from? We scooped away the snow from the top of the hive, pried off the frozen bricks and lid, and then began unwrapping the package. Beneath the tar paper were all kinds of bees, searching for a way out. Lifting off the insulation, we found that the snowload had shifted the moisture reducer towards the back just enough for the bees to chew a hole in the front corner of the fabric barrier and climb out the top of the hive. As we unearthed their home, delighted bees were buzzing everywhere, taking wing after a protracted and cramped winter.
They’re alive! I couldn’t believe it, just couldn’t. But if the colony was still alive, they were likely very short on food supplies. Our last honey harvest in the fall right before preparing the bees for winter had come at a crazy busy time on the farm. The tub with the honey-laden frames just kept getting shifted from this part of the farm to that, hoping for a moment to extract the liquid gold within. But that time never materialized.
Now, with bees in need of food, we raced to find that bin, which was exactly enough to fill a super body. It was also likely that the bees had packed away pollen in the corners of the frames, which is an important part of “bee bread” that is fed to the developing larva. As we approach the equinox, the queen in the hive will be ramping up her egg laying to build a strong workforce for the first nectar flows.
Of course, you can buy “pollen patties” that are a pollen-colored substitute, and you can also purchase in-hive bee feeders for corn syrup or sugar water, but saving work that the bees had put away of their real and natural foods is by far the best. And those bees could smell us coming with their honey—offering us a personal, hovering escort.
I took a quick check through the top hive body, and each frame was loaded with bees. The queen, however, must have been hiding below, but I was concerned about chilling the hive with too much poking and prodding. On the next really warm day, I will come back for a “peek-a-boo.” For now, I’m satisfied just knowing that the hive is alive and stocked up with good food. Hurray for those hearty little bees! Hopefully, we can make it through to spring. With all the trails of diseases, mites, and colony collapse that honeybees have been facing, it’s heartening to know that these special creatures on our farm shoulder forward with resilience yet. See you down on the farm sometime.
Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715-462-3453 www.northstarhomestead.com