We get a lot of questions about what we do with our honey bees during the winter. We aren’t a big enough operator to send hives south for pollination purposes.
In the fall when the weather starts getting colder, we winterize our bees. This involves placing an insulator kit around each hive. The kit is black to help absorb sunlight to keep the hives warm throughout the winter. However, the bee breeds we purchase are known for their hardiness in northern climates, so that is part of their winter survival as well.
Winterizing bee hives in the fall of 2014
This is what our hives look like after their insulator kit has bee placed on them. Each hive also gets a moisture board placed inside to absorb excess moisture that might build up in the hive. We don’t open the hives during the winter as this could cause the bees to die due to the cold and moisture. Our bees also get medication before the winter. Bees are highly susceptible to viruses and mites. Typically, a wild bee will join your hive at one point or another and they carry diseases as well as mites. Picture a mite like a tick on your body that you can’t remove. This is what happens to bees. The medication we use helps not only treat these issues, but prevent them as well. In 2015, we are looking at purchasing a different breed of bees that are known for grooming each other so they pick off the mites on each other.
So far this winter has been pretty mild for our bees. Although the bee breeds we purchase are hardy for Minnesota, repeated negative temperatures can be tough on the bees. Bees don’t quite hibernate like many think, but it is kind of similar. The worker bees will essentially beat their wings enough to keep the Queen alive through the winter. Some bee keepers may place their hives in a shed over the winter, where others, insulate them like we do.
As the days begin to get warmer, the bees will start to slowly emerge and become more active. This is when we start to check hives more. We watch the weather forecasts and then will remove the insulators. The bees themselves know when they should start foraging for pollen and that the weather is better, kind of like when we know it is safe to go out with just a sweatshirt on and not our down filled winter coat.
We hope you enjoyed the glimpse into what our bees do during the winter, and don’t forget to visit the Sweet Cheeks Honey website for additional information about our bees, and upcoming news!
My Facebook newsfeed is full of well-intentioned people posting about Monsanto’s latest news piece from Mexico and the bees, but fail to actually read it or understand the issues that someone raising bees are actually concerned with. It was all about Round-Up aka glyphosate (a weed killer not a neonicotinoid) and the banning of Round-Up ready soybeans to protect the bees.
I finally made a Facebook post about it because I was so frustrated. I am going to go into a little more detail about that post here.
First of all, soybeans are a self pollinating plant. You don’t need honey bees to pollinate soybeans. However, that doesn’t mean that honeybees do not visit soybeans, because they do. Soybeans are a flowering plant, however it isn’t known how honeybees visiting soybeans affect yields. Research is currently being done on this.
Second, Round-Up, aka Glyphosate, sold by many, many chemical companies out there not just Monsanto is a weed killer, not in the class of neonicotinoid’s that bee keepers are worried about. That being said, typically glyphosate is applied in early spring before weed emergence, long before bees are out in full force. And let’s face it, soap and water can kill bees too. Many farmers, including us, are transitioning away from glyphosate due to weed resistance. In fact, we didn’t use it at all this year. Glyphosate is the last thing I’m worried about as farmer hurting bees. That is like worrying about my bees getting caught out in a rain storm. The modern and large-scale use of glyphosate is more common in your neighbor’s backyard to kill weeds on their patio.
Third, neonicotinoids are what bee keepers are worried about. The studies are inconclusive. Largely inconclusive. Mark and I have sat in and listened to some of the greats like Dr. Spivak talk all about this. There are a few things you need to know about neonicotinoids. Neonicotinoids are used as a seed treatment in modern agriculture, meaning the seed has a coating that has it in it and helps protect the plant while it is growing from munchers like aphids, beetles and other insects. The concern with them is the dust that can happen during planting. However, new technology involving planters as well as new seed lubricants eliminate that dust by up to 90%. Neonicotinoid’s don’t actually kill the bees. They make a bee, essentially drunk. Think of the last time you had a few too many beers. Standing and forming complete sentences was a tad difficult yes? Since bees have to go much further than ever before to find nectar due to habitat loss, when they are essentially “drunk” they may not always find it back to the hive, and then die or when they do find their way back to the hive, their pollen is no longer good.
Fourth, we have been losing bees since WW2. Long before any types of these crop protectants were used in agriculture. Remember too that a bee’s lifespan is measured in weeks. They don’t live very long in general, but multiply quickly.
Fifth, one of the major issues (larger than neonicotinoids) are mites. This is our number one killer of bees. Mites are nasty little parasites that operate much like a tick, except for bees. They can quickly destroy an entire colony, and this is a major issue we deal with. We actually have to medicate our bees during the fall, before wintering them, in order to protect them. Most bee keepers medicate their bees due to mites.
Sixth, another major issue (often larger than neonicotinoids as well) is habitat loss. This is a big deal. Which is also another reason why we believe strongly in CRP and RIM land here at Hewitt Farms. We often put more land into CRP and RIM because we believe in restoring habitats for wildlife, bees included. Our bees are out on a piece of 20 acres of RIM land, that bumps up into CRP. We planted the RIM land in a clover and wildflower mixture specifically for the bees. Farmers are not the only ones who may have contributed to habitat loss through increased planting of corn, soybeans and wheat, the general public has also contributed. From tearing up fields to build new subdivisions, to paving new roads or building a school on outskirts of town in what was once prairie. All of this has contributed. So how can you help and move forward? Plant bee friendly flowers. Consider planting a whole flower bed in bee friendly flowers. Consider turning your front lawn or back yard into a bee friendly prairie. Try planting an apple tree or two. Plant a few hardy blueberry bushes. All of these things will help with bee habitat. You are going to start to see farmers changing what they are planting here because of crop prices, which is a good thing, as it will bring additional crops into the mix for bees.
Seventh, bee keeping is a business. Bee keepers don’t just keep bees for the fun of it. They recoup through shipping them for pollination and making honey or using the beeswax. This all causes stress to the bees. Hives aren’t just left to their own accord. I know of bee keepers that ship their bees from Minnesota down to Texas or California. This puts stress on the hives and can bring other diseases into your hives too. Every time you open a hive to take out a super or to check on the comb, it can cause stress on the hive. Yet, you have to do this because it is a business. You aren’t just going to keep bees to keep bees. You use the products they create: the comb and honey, as well as the pollination they do. There are a lot of steps you have to follow when taking care of a bee hive.
So what can farmers do? We can easily make sure we are spraying early enough in the spring when bees are not out in full force. However, this is completely weather dependent. We can focus on seed treatments rather than sprays. We can look at alternative crops to try. Some Minnesota hardy crops we can try are pumpkins, cherry trees, apple trees, and blueberries. I know that Mark and I are both interested in trying pumpkins in the future on our farm. But anyone can consider planting more of these around their garden or home. Think of a hedge of blueberry bushes at the end of your property! You can help pollinators and have delicious blueberries! We actually planted a cold-hardy blueberry bush this year at our home. Maybe you are interested in having a bee hive out on your property. We are always looking for additional places to put our hives, so if you have a piece of land you think we should check out to place a hive on, let us know!
Checking the hives and removing a pollen patty, a feed we give to the bees.
It is important not to blame this on one company. It is important to think of what we can all do going forward. Stopping the blame game and realizing we all play a part in it and are all at fault is also important. There are things we can control like I mentioned above, but there are some things we can only combat like mites and viruses our bees pick up. If you have questions about our bees, and what we are doing, please don’t hesitate to ask at any time!