The long winter
I came late to the bread-baking-during-the-pandemic phenom. Today I baked a loaf of bread from scratch. It was amazing and easy. I plan to do it again.
I’ve actually had two true pandemic hobbies: haunted dollhouses and beekeeping. In the fall of 2020 I made no fewer than 4 haunted dollhouses. My kids bought me a huge wooden dollhouse to spook up for Christmas of 2020, but I never go around too it. The prep for beekeeping started, and I never looked back.
The beekeepers calendar, depending on which beekeeper you talk to1, starts around March 15. By then the spring is coming on, queen bees are laying, and healthy hives are ready to swarm. The months between November and March are largely fallow for the beekeeper as survival is up to the bees. If they’re healthy and the colony is large enough, the bees will make it through the winter. If they’re not, they’ll die.
We had a ridiculously warm fall in Northern Virginia, with most days hitting the high 40s or even higher. We got our first snow storm around the new year, and the day before it was 68 degrees. We woke up the next day to highs in the low 30s and four inches of snow. The bees were stunned—after I cleared the snow in front of the hive the bees flew out and froze mid-flight. It was a sad few days as the dead bees piled up in front of the hives.
I have three colonies. Two are larger and robust and went into the winter with near 80,000 bees. The third was a late season split2 and smaller. We knew the colony might not survive, but the queen was amazing and was laying eggs right through November.
The small hive took the change in weather the hardest. Every morning for the first week of cold weather I found hundreds of dead bees laying in front of the hive and dead inside the hive. I wasn’t sure if the colony was too small to survive or just adapting, so my husband I started to strategize about option.
In the class I took on overwintering bees, the instructor was clear: Don’t be tempted to bring your bees inside. He never explained this, but I assumed he meant the house. But he didn’t say anything about a greenhouse. I don’t have one, but my next-door neighbor does. He spent a month of the winter in Florida, so I called to ask if I could move the small hive into the greenhouse for the cold snap. At that time, I thought it was going to last a few weeks.
I also did some research. It turns about, overwintering honey bees in greenhouses or sheds is a common practice, but not widespread. I watched the bees daily. They seem to be thriving with the additional shelter.
Fast forward four weeks later. We’ve had a bitter cold January. Our temperatures are getting back to near-normal, and I’m thinking maybe it’s time to move the bees back outside. The greenhouse gets pretty cold at night (at times into the low 20s), so as long as the outside temperature is going to stay in that range, the bees should be okay. In the meantime, I’m counting the days until we get to mid-March and the spring season begins. My hope has always been that the all three colonies will survive the winter and we can begin a new season.
But for now:
The joke among beekeepers is that if you ask two beekeepers about something, you’ll get three opinions.