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Winter Hive Tips

Hive Got a Few Ideas About Preservation

Mid-January can be a time of hardship for honeybees in Michigan. During this phase, the hives are inactive as beekeepers await the new season. Bees don't hibernate in the technical sense, but they do slow their metabolism and then ball up in the center of their hive and shiver to stay warm. They will maintain an inside temp of 95-98 degrees year 'round in the hive. Winter time is generally when most beekeepers lose their hives due to starvation. Very late winter, into early spring, as the bees start to become more active, but before there is any food available for them to collect; they will starve to death if they ran out of food in the hive. It is difficult to get hives to over-winter successfully, but all too often it is because the beekeeper isn't doing enough to winterize their hive to help the bees maintain the temperature they need to survive. It is very important for Michigan hives to be properly winterized.

For winterizing, the first thing to do is a hive check, where the keeper will go through each and every box looking for mites, beetles and other problems. The beekeeper must check for honey, to see if more food is needed for winter or if they have enough. Wrap the hive in a tarp or tar paper, then place straw bales or insulation boards around it, to block out the cold wind. There is no such thing as over-insulating. But the beekeeper should be sure to maintain air flow in the front and out the top of the hive, otherwise moisture and mold builds up and will ferment the honey.

Once the bitter winter sets in, it is too late to do anything for the bees. But occasionally, during a January thaw when it hits 50 degrees, it is possible to go out and quickly open the lid and look in to see if they are still alive. Otherwise, not much can be done to help them until it gets consistently warmer.

As most of the general population knows, the honeybee population (Apis Mellifera) has been in jeopardy for many years. Pollinating species like Butterflies and other insects are suffering across the board. With all the problems bees have; such as Varroa Destructor (Mite), Hive Beetle, Nosema, Foul Brood, etc.; it is extremely unlikely that feral bees will survive in the wild.

With this in mind, it is very important to capture wild honeybees when swarms of them are noticed. If these wild bees can be captured en masse and moved into a hive, their chances of survival are drastically improved. Thanks to the increase in the number of backyard beekeepers, the rescue of significant endangered wild bees is becoming a greater possibility.

It is viewed as a moral responsibility by beekeepers to spread the word as much as possible about rescuing wild bees. In Michigan, this has been a pretty successful effort, even spreading to the police department in Troy who saved a group of bees in 2016. The Detroit Free Press reported on June 3rd that officers responded to "an issue with bees" from a business at John R and Big Beaver Road.

"Upon arrival, a massive swarm of honeybees was found clumped in a small tree. Heavy pedestrian traffic was passing back and forth near the swarm of bees, creating a hazard," said a police news release.

To the officers’ great credit, rather than call an exterminator, they contacted a beekeeper, who relocated the bees to a Clarkston area farm.

The article cited Roger Sutherland, a current member and past president of the Southeastern Michigan Beekeepers Association. He stated that honeybee swarms are not normally a danger to the general public. When bees swarm, there are in search of a new place to establish themselves. They have likely moved out of their hive due to overcrowding.

"There's nothing to be excited about a swarm of bees. They're very, very calm. They don’t have a home to defend. They're the most gentle things in the world (at that point)."

It’s difficult to assess how many beekeepers are currently active in Michigan. More than 20 years ago, the State of Michigan eliminated the board/department that dealt with bees and apiary registration. Hobbyists can now keep bees without the need to become Beekeepers Association members, and the number of backyard enthusiasts is steadily climbing.

Anyone who wants to buy bees for 2017 should be trying to find them now. Bees are always in short supply, so if people wait too long (by end of March) most bees in the state and across the country will be sold out already.

In the meantime, January is a good month in which to educate yourself.

Suggested books for beginners:

  • Beekeeping for Dummiesby Howland Blackiston

  • First Lessons in Beekeeping by Keith S. DeLaplane

Those interested in beekeeping can also watch videos (be sure to locate videos that are centered in Michigan, as different locations will have different requirements for housing and care), go to free classes and ultimately, find a beekeeper who will mentor you. These amazing creatures are fascinating to work with. But they can be tricky. No two hives will act the same, so you constantly have to watch, figure out what is going on and then attempt to help them along.

Many experts agree that honeybee die-off should be the top 10 most threatening topics for us as a civilization. Honeybees (pollinators) are considered “the canary in the coal mine” for our food chain and our ecosystem. If they go, the rest of the food chain may be irreparably damaged and the ripple effect will be swift and devastating. So many creatures rely on insects as their source of food, and so many plants and trees rely on them to produce their fruit and seeds. It’s possible that we cannot even begin to know the effects of the loss of pollinators.

Therefore, anyone who has an interest is widely encouraged to follow up, learn all they can, and contribute their own efforts to preserving the bees. It may not seem like much, but collectively, we may already be saving the planet.

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