With each winter comes the want of spring, and this year has been no different.
This year’s winter notes come from Gabe Dadant, who is continuing the Dadant Family tradition of raising bees and passing down what he’s learned to the next generation.
Hard Winter Lessons for Young Beekeepers
My wife and I have two boys. She is an elementary school teacher and they are of the Xbox generation, ages 10 and 13. We have kept bees on and off at the house since the boys could walk, and they now manage a few hives of their own. They sell what honey they produce in hopes of saving enough to call that beat-up flatbed bee truck their own when they turn 16.
This winter, the boys learned a hard lesson as they watched one of their two eight-frame hives succumb to the frigid cold. Starvation was the culprit: Feed was just out of reach, the bee’s heads buried inside the cells.
As is often the case, the cluster was only inches away from capped honey — close, but not close enough to get those reserves they needed so dearly. Like past winters, we’re already hearing stories of 50% losses across much of the state’s hives. I hate to say it, but we probably haven’t seen the worst yet: spring is still a long way off.
Common Winter Concerns
Every February, the phones start ringing at the Dadant & Sons plant with calls from concerned beekeepers. The first thing most of them say is, “Tell me my bees are alive.” I respond with my normal questions:
“Did you treat for varroa? Did you feed in the fall?”
Usually, this is when it gets silent on their end of the line.
The replies I do hear vary, but typically follow one of a few common themes:
“I treated with powdered sugar.”
“I treated with Apivar in the spring but didn’t check my mite counts in the fall.”
“I didn’t see a single mite all season — I have no mites.”
“The bees kept all the honey for themselves, so I didn’t need to feed.”
You get the picture. Can I say for sure their bees are dead or alive without looking? Of course not. I can, however, predict the likely outcome for them based on the answers to my questions.
If they didn’t treat for varroa or feed in the fall, the chances of survival are slim. But if they take charge now and stay on top of the hive by babying it until the dandelions shoot up, they have a good chance at keeping that colony alive.
A Quick Midwinter Feeding with the Boys
When temperatures finally hit 50 degrees this past Saturday, my boys got into their bee suits, just as I’ve always done. Those Dadant winter patties I’d brought home the day before had been warming up to room temperature and were now ready to be put on the hive.
With smokers lit, into the hives we went. I told the boys they only had 10–15 seconds inside with the top and inner covers off. Two stacks of winter patties were placed on the top bars, then we quickly closed the hives back up and waited. The following morning, temps had dropped back down to the mid 20’s, but by that afternoon it was in the upper 40’s.
I took advantage of the relative afternoon warmth to peek through the Plexiglas inner cover. I found our bees readily eating the patties, possibly saving the colony from starvation. Will this be enough feed for the rest of the winter? Probably not. But until the temps are steadily in the 50’s, each nice day we have we’ll put on additional patties.
Making the Rounds for Winter Feeding
The hives at our house are much easier to access this time of year compared to the 60 hives I run in three separate yards. The main yard is behind the factory at Dadant & Sons corporate office, the second is up north of town on the river road, and the third is about 15 miles south of town at the family farm. This past fall, however, high river water made it necessary to move the yard behind the plant out to the family farm.
It’s a ½ mile walk back to the bees from the main road this time of year. The ground is really soggy, and dad doesn’t like the old dirt road rutted up by my truck. So, it’s off to work we go, making the rounds on foot with a deer sled and 120 pounds of patties.
We will continue to make the rounds this way until spring comes. The next feeding we’ll use a mixture of AP23 protein and winter patties. The winter patties provide the needed carbohydrates to make it through until the dandelions bloom, while the high-protein patties will kick the queen into gear, helping her rear brood that will help cover my losses this coming spring.
The bees look good so far. Only 10% losses to date, but as I said earlier, spring is still a long way off.
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