Our beekeeping journey began with a flash, a clap of thunder – and a bolt of lightning hitting my son, Sebastian, in the chest. The shock stopped his heart and scrambled his neurocircuitry. His physical and cognitive rehabilitation included small carpentry projects and gardening, which in turn led him to a fascination with honeybees, since they could help his plants.
We built our first top bar hive together, four years ago (I’m still a relatively new beekeeper). It was fall, much too late to obtain bees. We let the hive overwinter and off-gas so the bees would accept it. (We had put in two plastic windows using a silicone caulk, so off-gassing seemed like a good idea.) That first winter was a time of anticipation – and some anxiety. What I didn’t realize back then was just how much a beekeeper can accomplish during the winter months…
Joe “The Bee Guy” Westbrook says, winter is a great time for reading. It’s a chance to expose yourself to new information, or old information in a new way. Often, my spring and summer reading is more anxiety-driven as I am usually trying to find the answers to problems or concerns about the hive. During the winter there is more time to relax.
During this past year, I rediscovered the library. Borrowing instead of buying has saved me a bundle! The Internet is another great resource for gathering information on any beekeeping subject. You can read articles or click on an expansive variety of YouTube videos on building and purchasing hives, Langstroth, top bar, Warre and other hives, methods for managing bees, trap out instruction, cut out instruction, feeding methods, and treatment methods for integrated pest management. The NMBKA website also offers a library of “Beekeeping Basics” videos.
ORDER & BUILD
Procrastination is one of my most accomplished faults, but I still recommend getting a jump on spring. If you anticipate needing another Langstroth hive, or other beekeeping equipment, winter is a great time to order. You can save money by ordering unassembled boxes and frames; assembly is easy and the perfect project for a cold winter day. Better to have that extra hive handy as opposed to scrambling to figure out where to hive that swarm or trap out opportunity. Winter is also a great time to make that top bar or Langstroth nucleus (small hive) in preparation for splitting a hive in the spring.
STOCK & RESTOCK
Winter is a time for restocking consumable supplies like pine needles, horse manure, egg cartons, and wood chips for burning in the smoker. My current smoker starter preference is ponderosa pine needles; they are easy to gather by hand and ignite quickly before adding dried horse manure or wood chips. Storage is easy in a plastic tub or bag.
WATER & FOOD
Providing water is still critical during the winter. Because of freezing, placing the water container in the sun promotes ice melting, making it accessible to the bees on days warm enough for the girls to fly. But do your beehives need to be fed or not? Some beekeepers are “for” feeding, some “against,” and the “beet sugar or cane sugar” debate continues. The Beekeeper’s Bible provides a simple winter formula: Fill a jar with sugar, add boiling water and stir until sugar is dissolved. Fondant can be purchased from many beekeeping supply vendors. A homemade fondant recipe from The Barefoot Beekeeper is: 5 pounds of sugar,
1 pint of water, 3 tbsp. of organic cider vinegar. Bring to a boil stirring constantly and when cool, add a dollop of honey. Well- known beekeeper and speaker, Michael Bush, just adds dry sugar to the hive if needed. The advantage of dry sugar is it adds no moisture; excess moisture during the winter can cause condensation inside the hive resulting in the possibility of cold water dropping onto the bee cluster and chilling the bees.
If we truly learn from our mistakes, I should be brilliant by now. I’m not sure that’s happened, but hopefully this summary of winter activities, learned through bumpy experience, might at least help a few of you prepare for our New Mexico spring!
Article can be found in NMBKA March 2015 Newsletter