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What the Honeybees Are Drinkin’

January 11, 2010

February 4, 2009

Liquid winter stores are running low around my place. The keg is dry, the bottles empty, but while our nectar is easy to replace, the bees are going to have a hard time finding something sweet in the next few months. Emergency measures are in order.

A simple syrup of two parts water to one part sugar is the most efficient means of replacing the honey the bees have consumed. The ideal food for starving bees is honey, but the expense makes it an unreasonable proposal. In the past, we’ve stashed away frames fully loaded with honey in the freezer for times like these, but last summer’s beekeeping did not provide that opportunity.

We are down to two hives. The little swarm colony died of starvation, never leaving the winter cluster to feast on the full feeder 12 inches above them. The frames closest to the center told the story of their trial. Every comb held a starved bee burrowed deep inside, head first, in a valiant attempt to reach the last drop of honey, already long gone. Dead bees lay hundreds deep on the bottom board under the frames. So long to the little colony rescued last summer from a tree in front of the Nauset Middle School.

The remaining colonies are strong, maybe too strong. The supers are packed with bees, but offer no food for their multitudes. Late winter is a slippery season for all Cape Codders and the most deadly for bees. Warm spells increase activity, but also up the calories needed to survive potty flights, missions for water and just puttering around the hive. (Bees leave the hive to go, which is more than I can say for most of the creatures I care for.) Just when the bees are getting a chance to stetch their legs and beat their wings, the honey put away throughout the foraging season is running out.

When the temperature is above 40 degrees, we can open the hives and check on the bees, refilling feeders and getting a quick look at the health of the colonies. Recent warm weather meant a rare mid-winter chance to feed outside. I placed the syrup close and watched as the bees came to investigate. Once a bee finds a source of pollen, nectar, water or even cooling apple pie, it will tanslate the location to the other bees in the hive with the waggle dance. It doesn’t take long for the supplemental feeders to be covered with bees. Multiple feeding locations are essential when dealing with more than one hive. The last thing the bees need now is a sugar war, and bees will fight over water or nectar. (Approaching a heavily trafficked water source, such as a child’s pool or a birdbath, is an easy way to get stung by honeybees, as their normally docile natures change in the heat of aggression.)

The honeybee’s chance to find food outside is over for now. Snow blankets the hives and I hope they will live until the next chance for assistance. Should I have dropped a super filled with drawn comb and a syrup feeder on top of the colony? Adding stories to the stack is not usually recommended, as they have no way of heating that space. Beekeeping is endless enigma. I didn’t take any honey off the hives last summer – we are still working on big jars of the sweet stuff gathered in better years, but the bees are still starving. Go figure. Weather prognosticators are calling for temps in the 40s this weekend. You know where I’ll be.

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