I have been keeping bees for four years in the Northeastern United States. With a background and career in science, I am always examining things, sometimes through a different set of glasses than others. Up until recently, there has been little research dedicated to bees. It seems as though now as people realize that we could potentially lose the honeybees, science is finally coming to the table to try and “save the bees”. Hopefully it is not too late.
These thoughts are my own and I certainly have not done any large randomized controlled studies, but I thought that they would be worth sharing. Perhaps some beekeepers might find them helpful and cost effective, and maybe help their bees to survive in their own backyards.
There are many beekeepers in my local club of over 200 people that have been keeping bees for practically a lifetime. There are many that don’t even blink an eye when sharing that they have been keeping bees for over 50 years. When chatting with them over the years, they all say the same thing. Beekeeping is not as easy as it was all those years ago.
The world has certainly changed in many ways for the bees. This includes environmental changes, pests, pesticides, and more. I believe these all put stressors on the colonies, making them less likely to thrive and survive during the harshest of seasons, winter. However, all is not lost. We just need to change the way we obtain, raise, and keep bees. We also need to question some of our practices. I think some of these thoughts below might be part of the solution.
Thoughts for Hardier Bees
Purchase local nucs or packages. Bees raised in your locale are accustomed to living in your climate. Therefore, I would argue that these bees are less stressed when transitioning to a new hive. They are also accustomed to the weather and the climate, which probably makes life easier for them. These queens also seem to take triggers from the environment, earlier than bees from warmer locales, that winter is coming and the hive needs to change gears in order to survive.
Purchase bees overwintered in your location. If you live in a cold climate this is especially important. Some apiaries in the Northeast ship their nucs down south to overwinter. Of course, nucs overwintered in warmer climates will have a better survival rate than those overwintered in the Northeast. I think this seems to be in the apiary’s best interest, not yours. It makes sense that bees that can survive the winters are the ones that we want contributing to the local gene pool.
Diversify the gene pool. Seek out a variety of bee breeds. Remember your drones will be mating with other local queens. Your bees have a direct impact on the quality of the bees in your area. In addition to Italian bees, there are Russian, Carniolan and even “mutts” available across the US. Beekeepers are also breeding hygienic bees. These bees recognize sick bees in the hive and remove them. I have hygienic bees and yes, I do think they do better.
Don’t take too much honey. The best food for bees is their own. There are some years when I forgo harvesting honey and leave it for the bees. Sugar water is not the same as honey. This also brings up concerns for me regarding the Flow Hive– but that is another blog post.
Optimize Nutrition. The best food for bees is their own honey and pollen. Good nutrition, whether in humans or bees, helps us all deal with physical and environmental stressors.
Know Your Bees. Regular inspections are important, but don’t explore too far. Once you see evidence of the queen- eggs, larvae, and a good capped brood pattern- return things back to normal. When assessing winter honey stores, a heft of each deep should give you an idea if they are prepared for winter.
Three Deeps. This past year instead of allowing the bees to fill and store two deeps with honey for winter, I encouraged them to fill three for themselves. Yes, I did forgo a late summer honey harvest. Three deeps got the bees through the winter without a need for me to feed them anything but their own honey.
Make Splits. Colonies that survive the winter are the ones that you want to add to the local gene pool. Those are the ones hardiest for your area and they should be split into new hives. This helps put their genes into the local bees and also helps to ensure you are keeping hardier bees for your area.
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Good morning, we are new to bee keeping what are some of the Native plants and flowers from Europe that we can plant here?
Everything I have been reading has been quite useful but does anyone have information on raising African bees. I live in Belize and have eight hives of Africanized bees. I have been having great success with honey but they are quite temperamental and you only have to cross your eyes wrong at them and they are liable to swarm. so I have been considering crossing them with a domesticated strain. I wish to keep the africanized part of their gene as they are very hardy workers but sometimes even after four years my heart still jumps a little when they swarm over me attempting to kill me if I dont have enough smoke. any suggestions would be appreciated. firstname.lastname@example.org
Requeen with a more docile queen.
I am interested in bee keeping, but am concerned with over wintering the bees. Winter temps in my area can reach -25 to -30* below zero and stay that way for 6 to 8 weeks. Would I have to have an insulated and heated building to sustain them through the worst of the winter temps? Further, at what temps would I have to take them in and at what temps could I look forward to takiing them back out? I thank you in advance for any info that you can shed on this subject and again thank you for your great enlightening articles. Pete
Thank you for this great article on commonsense beekeeping practices. Here in Northernmost Illinois, our hive survived this past winter (the year before it did not – but my husband had been encouraged by other beekeepers to take more honey than he should have – and then we had several horrific episodes with the polar vortex.) Because of the polar vortex episodes of the previous year, we had purchased an insulated hive cover such as those used in Canada over the winters. I don’t know if that qualifies our hive as hardy or not, seeing as we “cheated” to some degree. The hive is very strong and foraging is highly successful – and the Queen is also doing an amazing job. We hope the hive will split, and have a second hive set up next to it just in case that happens, or in case of a random swarm. I don’t think we’ll ever overwinter without these insulated wraps though.
Thank you so much Patricia D. for your information I did exactly what you did and lost my hive. Where can I purchase the insulator you talked about in your article? Can I just leave the hive where it is and use the insulator? Or do I have to move them to a shed? This is my second year of bee keeping and I’am learning something new every day. Thanks again for your advice.
Your third sentence is incorrect. How can I read the rest and believe you? “Up until recently, there has been little research dedicated to bees.” I guess it depends on how you define recently and research. Bees have been domesticated for thousands of years and I would think anyone keeping bees than studied and watched them, is that not what research is?
Three Deeps!! I am going to do this in Pennsylvania next year.
I did that this year in upstate New York, after the last 2winters, I put the third deep on in the spring add still made 70 pounds plus for me per hive that is.
Hello, I am trying to find a group to discuss bees. I need help. I just lost my colony do to a sudden freeze. I am sadly cleaning up plus I was a terrible bee keeper. Do I need to scrape all of the combs clean, or will a new colony reuse them. If you can please let me know. Thank you
for Linda,for gods sake don’t scrape the comb off,just brush off the dead bees and shake some cedar shavings into the boxes to keep out the wax moth, seal entrance to keep out mice, and your good to go next spring. buy a 5 frame nuc from a local beekeeper next spring, good luck and don’t give up.
You can purchase bees from other areas as long as it’s a similar climate. California in some areas is very similar to new mexico, so that would be a good fit. This is useful when the type of bee is a better producer of honey than your current local varant. A young bee keeper from New Mexico had her dad make her a traveling apiary trailer mount so she could do just that transport the hives she bought from Northern California to New Mexico. I do understand this authors argument and in some cases it’s sound. But with conditions in some places with hive collapse it’s not a good fit. The next best thing is get the bees from a similar climate. The less stress they will have when they arrive and overwinter.
I ,too, am experimenting with leaving fall honey on my hives and not feeding my bees with substitutes. We live in an area with several winter blooming plants so the bees have nutrition if things go well. I would like to have bees that survive the winter with their own stores. As of this day all hives are surviving but with fewer bees than I would see with feeding them. Winter solstice is coming soon and things change as the days lengthen. Hopefully, I will have five queens that made it through the winter. And hives that will mot swarm in early spring.
I’m afraid I may not have left enough honey in the fall (shouldn’t have taken any really), but, I took some. How do I feed the bees in a top bar when it is wrapped up tight for winter?
I just read the comments here. This is the first I’ve seen about cedar shavings for wax moths. Like to hear more how to use them.
Cedar shavings? Thus Cedar lined closet keeps moths away, is this what she is saying, so use it in a hive to keep wax moth away.?
Just a few things on the questions below. I lost a hive over the winter some years back. This was before mites beetles. It depends on weather and how much honey the bees have stored. In the northeast, I think 2 bodies is generally enough for winter stores. I try to inspect when we gets winter thaw so that if they are low on honey in say December, January, or February, I can feed them sugar water to supplement their stores. It’s not ideal but will sustain them till spring. Also now we have to treat for mites and beetles. To feed in the winter, I put an empty hive body on top of the inside cover, mix a 2-1 water/cane sugar mix, place the mix over the hole in the inside cover, place the outside cover over the empty body and let the bees feed until empty. Usually about 1 to 1/12 weeks later. Don’t forget to pierce the cover of the container you use for feeding. I use a bee escape To draw a pattern on the cover of the container and then make 4 marks to be sure it matches up to the hole in the inside cover.