Tuesday, June 16, 2009

How Be Our Bees

When we first moved up here in the mid 70s, the weather was different than it has been for the past fifteen or so years. Then we had longer, colder winters. We had successfully kept honey bees in Illinois and had every intention of continuing to do so in Minnesota. Although we did everything we could in our attempt to keep bees for several years, they never made it through the winter. As much as we missed the bees and having our own honey, we went on a long hiatus from beekeeping.

Then about six years ago, we felt it was time to get back into honey production. We seemed to be in a milder, less severe period of winters and, no doubt about it, we really, really missed having the bees for many reasons. Happily, our re-entry into the beekeeping world went well and we once again had ample stores of honey for our own use and for sharing with friends. Plus we noticed that most plants, including vegetables in our garden, were thriving because of the bees' pollination.

We went into last winter with five hives of honey bees. Two hives were very strong; three were not quite as heavily populated but in good shape. Then came a winter that made us remember vividly those that we'd experienced back in the 70s. Very cold. Very gray. Very long. Too much prolonged cold and virtually no warm, sunny days in which the bees could get out to make their vital cleansing flights. To top that off, spring didn't arrive in northeastern Minnesota this year. It was just a continuation of close to winter temps but minus the snow.

When the head beekeeper (that would be Roy) checked the hives in March, he found the bees in the two strongest hives had eaten all the honey we'd left for them except that which was farthest away from the clusters of bees which had obviously huddled together in a last ditch effort to stay warm enough to maintain life. Bee excrement was plastered all over the front of the hives and all the bees were dead. In the other three hives, he discovered much the same situation except for one very small cluster of bees that had somehow managed to hang on. He moved frames of honey close to the cluster and left the hives feeling less than hopeful.

We've had a bumper crop of dandelions this spring, but the weather has remained very, very cool. Many times you could have seen both of us walking slowly through the carpet of golden dandelion blossoms (and anything else we could find blooming) hoping to see busy bees working the flowers. Sadly, we've seen very little activity.

As of this past weekend, Roy reports the surviving hive is still struggling to make it. It has a low population and although the queen looks good, she's laying only a small number of eggs because there just aren't that many bees available to take care of much brood. If the hive makes it, it will be a long, slow process of building back up.

When we took the top cover off our remaining hive this morning, this is what we saw. If the hive were strong and healthy, the frames would be covered with bees.

We're not alone in our sad bee predicament. Nearly all the beekeepers in our area and over the border into Canada suffered the same losses.

So how be our bees? Well, not so pretty good right now. But we've all done some brainstorming (including Canadian beekeeping friends) and come up with some ideas to try for next winter just in case it's a repeat of the one just past. Roy's been pouring over the bee books each night and feels there's still hope for beekeeping in The Tundra. Where there's a will, there's a way. We're not giving up on those amazing, fascinating, honey-making machines.


RuthieJ said...

One of my neighbors is an experienced beekeeper and would be willing to help me get started in beekeeping. He also got one of the other neighbors started this spring, but I just wasn't ready this year. I will definitely have to get some hives built and try it for next spring and I have already picked out a good spot for the hives.
I'm fascinated with beekeeping and have found lots of information from reading the posts of my blogging friends too!

Mama Pea said...

Hi, Ruthie - Beekeeping would certainly fit right in with all your other interests. Having someone to stand right next to you while learning is invaluable. Hope you can take advantage of your neighbor's offer and get started next spring. You'll love it!