Keeping Bees in The Winter of 2021

Keeping Bees in The Winter of 2021

Winter 2021

2021 was an odd year for our hive girls. We only lost two out of 75 hives exiting the winter months. Individual colonies were strong going into March. Foragers started entering hives loaded with pollen from American Witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana L.) and red maple (Acer rubrum), but the vagaries of weather known too well by farmers, gardeners and beekeepers alike failed to disappoint. An early, warm spring was promptly stifled by a Blackberry Winter. Also know as a Dogwood or Redwood Winter, Black Berry winter is a late cold spell of weather which occurs when the blackberry briars are beginning to bloom. The early blossoms of spring were burned by the severity of this freeze and died. Hives that were ramping up production suddenly lost their resources and went into distress. We lost another three hives due to starvation. These three were my strongest hives and among several others were scheduled to be split, but I was too late in seeing their predicament and they perished. Honey bees do not hoard, but will share the hives assets with one another until all stores are depleted. You can have a strong spring hive of 20,000 bees and within an hour, the entire colony will have perished. It’s very sad to experience and always weighs heavy on the compassionate beekeeper.

Due to the Blackberry Winter, 2021 was a game of catch up. Bees in Appalachia rely mainly on hardwood forests to provide sustenance in both pollen and nectar. The pollen of the red maple, the first fount of bee protein of the year was devastated by the freeze. Other trees and shrubs upon which pollinators rely were also delayed in their florescence. The shelves of local grocery and big box stores bereft of 25# bags of cane sugar gave witness to the desperation of Western North Carolina beekeepers who were making syrup for their hungry bees.

Needless to say the honey producing season was delayed. We accede the first 50 pounds of honey to each hive and usually begin our wildflower harvest in early June. This was delayed nearly a month so the bees could store their own reserves and produce enough honey for Killer Bees Honey. Luckily for all involved, it was a fairly dry summer. This allowed greater flight time for foraging bees. Honey bees scoured the forest from dawn to dusk unfettered by summer storms. Due to the delayed spring, nature hit the accelerator in late May and decided that everything should bloom at once. Honey supers couldn’t be thrown onto the hives fast enough. When we couldn’t keep up with the bees, they tended to swarm. Tulip Poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera) blossoms filled with of nectar. A favorite with honey bees, it made up the bulk of our wildflower honey. Unfortunately, we had a poor sourwood season and what sourwood we did collect was heavily mixed with basswood.

The last of the honey supers were pulled in August, a month later than normal. This delayed our end of summer (V. Destructor) mite treatments. We use organic methods to control mites. Formic acid strips are placed inside the hives in the fall to kill the mites. Queens in their respective hives stop laying eggs during the treatments. This causes colony population to decline at a crucial time of the year; fall bees are responsible for raising critical “fat” bees for the winter. The sole purpose of fat bees is to keep their queens warm. If there are not enough bees, the hive will die due to hypothermia. 

My next blog will address how successful our bees over wintered.