Preparing the Backyard Bees for Winter

Winter Bees

Often, when talking to people about our bees, I get asked what the bees do during the winter. The answer is pretty amazing, really. 

A bee born in the spring will generally live for around six weeks, but a bee born in the late fall can live for up to four months. The reason for this is that over the cold months, the bees’ metabolisms slow down, preserving their energy and, as a result, slowing the aging process. 

Bees are experts at regulating the temperature in the hive. In the summer, that means bearding and fanning to cool things off. In the winter, that means sealing the hive with propolis (bee glue) and forming a cluster. Bees cluster when the outside air temperature dips below around 57 degrees. (I have sometimes seen the bees out flying when it is slightly cooler than that.) The cluster keeps the queen and any brood present at the proper temperature, between 85 and 93 depending on the status of the brood nest. The cluster needs to maintain contact with the stored food or they can starve to death even if there is plenty of honey in the hive. If it gets really cold outside, the bees may enter torpor, a sort of suspended animation in which their metabolism slows down so much that they require little fuel and look dead. Their are plenty of videos out there of people breathing bees “back to life” by bringing them out of torpor. 

Winter Hive Setup

Since temperature isn’t really a problem for bees most of the time, the really issues are 1) mites and 2) moisture. 

The Varroa Destructor Mite is the probable cause of many colony collapses because the parasitic mites deplete the nutrition vital to winter bees and also spread disease. It is vital to get the mite situation under control before the queen is rearing the winter bees so that the cluster is as healthy as possible. I treated our bees with Apivar and Formic Pro during the year. Before closing the hive up for the winter, I also did an Oxalic Acid Drip to try to get rid of as many mites as I could. I feared that the extended bit of warm weather we had, which lead the queen to keep laying a decent sized nest, meant the mites would keep breeding too. Having a large cluster is great, but as the bee population starts to decline, the mites could overtake them. So, I hope that worked. 

Colorado is a pretty dry climate, so I am not very worried about moisture, but too much moisture in the hive can be disastrous to the bees. When they generate heat for themselves, some condensation is created and some is needed. Bees, like all living things, need water. But if too much builds up, it can drip on the bees and/or lead to mold, both of which are very bad. To control moisture, I put a quilt box on top of the honey super. The quilt box (purple in the picture) has a thick layer of pine shavings from the chicken supplies that will absorb moisture. It also features screened vents to allow ventilation, another form of moisture control. Under the quilt box, I have a feeding shim (blue), which will allow me to add a layer of dry sugar (Mountain Camp Method) later in the winter as emergency feed. The dry sugar will also absorb moisture in the hive. If I put it in too early, though, the bees will just haul it out like trash. Many beekeepers tilt their hives forward about 5 degrees to allow water to run out of the hive, but I cannot figure out how to do that with my hive stand. Given the dry climate and the quilt box, I hope that this setup works.

Finally, there’s a mouse guard and it’s all strapped to gether with a ratchet strap with some heavy rocks on top. This setup held it all together during 85 mph winds yesterday!

 It’s our first winter with the bees and I have so enjoyed them this year. I really hope that they make it through the winter. The requeening late in the season made me nervous, but the long stretch of warm weather gave them a leg up, I think. I fed them 2:1 syrup along the way so that they didn’t have to break into their stores. At the last inspection, I estimated that they had about 100 pounds of honey stored, plus plenty of pollen. I’ve seen them out taking “cleansing flights” (to go to the bathroom) and dragging out dead bees on each warm day, and I get a little thrill every time. 

 Good luck, bees! I hope to see you in the spring.  -Kasey

Further Reading

Scientific Beekeeping: Fat Bees Part 1

Honey Bee Suite: Temperature regulation in a winter cluster

Lessons We Learned In Our Second Year

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We are having an unseasonably warm autumn where we are, with temperatures still consistently in the upper 50s. We’ve even had some days in the 70s lately, which has been great for the bees and for giving us a little leeway as we break things down for the winter. 

As we work on winterizing the garden and the beehive, it has been natural to think about what we learned this year, primarily by making mistakes or making things harder on ourselves. So, here are the big lessons we’ve learned. 

IMG_20210825_135914620_HDRBrush the Alpacas Before Shearing Them

During the first week of June, our alpacas were sheared for the first time at our homestead. They were so ready for a haircut! Before we sent the prime cuts of their fleece to a fibermill to be spun into yarn, we had to skirt the fleece—that means picking out the hay, debris, and matts. I don’t know if you know this about alpacas, but they like to roll around in the dirt and hay. They were pretty dusty and dirty and skirting their fleece was a nightmare. Kasey is still working on getting their second and third cuts ready to spin and it is just so full of hay. 

We contacted our mentor to ask him if there was anything that we could do to keep them cleaner. Some really serious farms keep their alpacas in coats so that they can’t get hay, etc. stuck in their fleece, but that is too hardcore for us. And Moira is always hot enough as it is. We also knew that brushing them could destroy the structure of their fleece, which is meant to have a beautiful crimp to it. We visited our mentor during Alpaca Farm Days and he showed us a bucket full of different brushes that we could use before shearing. If we are shearing them to spin the fleece into yarn, it is okay for us to brush them then, because spinning destroys the crimp of the yarn. Of course! So, we hope that next year that will be less of an issue for us. 

Get Beekeeping Timing Right

IMG_20210616_134653790One of the biggest disappointments we had this year had to do with the beehive. Kasey keeps our bees and this is her first year. She got the bees on May 2nd and now wishes that she had immediately tested the bees for mites and treated them, but she was new and nervous about it and it took a few weeks to get used to working with them before she was ready to check for mites. She did so the third week of May and the mite count was really high. If she had understood her options better, she probably would have used Formic Pro, but she didn’t understand that the temperature restrictions were just for the first three days. Knowing that it would soon be really hot, she instead used Apivar, adding it May 25 and removing it on July 20th. 

Apivar cannot be used with the honey supers on, because the treatment creates residue in the honey and the wax that is not safe for human consumption. When the treatment was added, there were no supers on, but there were two deeps. It was a killer honey flow this year, though, and so supers were needed after a couple of weeks so that the bees didn’t run out of room. Long story short, they filled two medium honey supers with honey, none of which was safe for human consumption. It will get fed back to the bees, but by the time the treatment was done, the honey flow was over and summer dearth had set in. So many mistakes. 

Kasey feels pretty annoyed and let down by this mistake. She didn’t plan on harvesting honey this year, but with such a good season, it would have been nice to be able to harvest a couple of frames to give as Christmas gifts. Then, in late summer, she did use Formic Pro, and the queen ended up dying. More on that in another post. The most important thing is that the bees make it through the winter, but this was a steep learning curve and the mite treatment was the only part that was really frustrating.

Gardening Lessons 

IMG_20211009_152353403 (1)The garden grew SO. MUCH. BETTER. this year overall. We grew a delicious assortment of winter squash and pumpkins, patty pan squash, zucchini, greens, some tiny carrots, green beans. The Harvest Moon Squash was a variety we’d never tried before and it was delicious when stuffed and baked. 

But there’s still room for growth (pun intended). We realized that we want more room, so next year we are most likely building four more raised beds to create a natural buffer in front of the beehive and extend the garden’s footprint. 

We also learned that our watering strategy was insufficient. Although we got many, many squash and pumpkins, our Jack O’Lanterns and corn were puny and we think that was in part due to shifting too late from the type of watering we were doing to encourage the seedlings to grow to the deep watering that the plants needed to form fruit. We will also be watering the orchard more. 

IMG_20211009_114345683_HDRWhen we cleaned out the barn, it produced a giant mound of old, old horse manure. We were able to give a lot of it away for people to compost, but Kasey also used a lot to create a base layer for flowerbeds around the edge of the horse run. The plan was to grow wildflowers there to support pollinators. Her dream is to have lush perennial wildflower garden that takes not that much maintenance. She planted lavender, sunflowers, apache plume, Veronicas, and cone flowers there. The lavender was really the only thing that grew. Everything else scorched. She needs to test the soil, but it seems like the soil is too hot. The plan is to mulch it over the winter to draw out some of the nitrogen, but it was a good lesson in checking soil PH. 

There were so many lessons this year, but these were the biggest ones. What did you learn this year through trial and error? Let us know below. 

Preparing for Christmas at Sol Homestead

If you have longed for a simpler Christmas in years past, 2020 has provided you with the opportunity. For us at Sol Homestead, it is our first Christmas in our home and also our daughter’s first Christmas. Due to the pandemic, we are not traveling to spend the holiday with either of our families and we are trying our hardest to make things merry, despite the circumstances. To do so, we are focusing on starting traditions with our daughter that we plan to continue through her childhood. In short, the joy of this Christmas, if we manage it, comes not from bustle and merriment, but from designing what Christmas will feel like in our home for the first time.

We are trying to keep things simple and cozy in the traditions we establish, focusing on togetherness and simple pleasures. It has been on our hearts how much of a struggle it will be for some families to celebrate this year, not only because of a pandemic advisement against travel, but also because of economic hardship. We look at our newborn, who won’t really “get” Christmas this year (beyond lights—she loves those) and our hearts hurt for parents who may struggle to get gifts for their children. In that spirit, we think it is best to keep our celebration modest—for the most part, making due with what we have, even though the tree skirt is too small and some of our lights burned out, etc. (Of course, we got each other alpacas for Christmas, so that feels pretty big!) We did get a real, tall tree, and Kasey invested in the supplies to make the JOY garland on the railing, an idea her mom found on Pinterest.

The additional benefit for the long-term is that trying to keep things simple this year will hopefully set a foundation for Christmases that don’t get super commercialized every year. One of our hopes for our girl is that she does not get stuck on the consumer hamster wheel and we want to do our part to keep the holidays feeling homey and special without them feeling too much about stuff. So, here is what we’re doing.

Advent We are Catholic, so Advent is a special part of our preparation for Christmas. It feels like the verse on our advent wreath really hits home this year: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; Upon those who lived in a land of gloom a light has shone” (Isaiah 9:1). We use two advent wreathes, even though it is awkward to find a place for them both, because the first Christmas we were married, Kasey’s dad sent us one, not knowing that we already had one. He has since passed away, so it feels extra special to put out the one he sent. We also use our nativity set, just like the Fontanini one Kasey grew up with. Baby Jesus arrives for Christmas night and then the three wise men start their journey from across the living room to the nativity for the Feast of the Epiphany. This year, we also have a felt advent calendar where we will put up a different character in the nativity each night before bed. We imagine these things will only get to be more fun as the baby grows.

Pajamas for St. Nicholas Day We love the idea of giving Christmas jammies but wanted our growing girl to get to wear them all month (especially since zippy jammies are the easiest thing to dress her in), so we’ve decided that we will give her new Christmas pajamas on St. Nicholas Day each year. We will also continue our tradition of listening to David Sedaris’s hilarious story “Six to Eight Black Men” that morning over coffee (Caution: it is not safe for little ears).

Jólabókaflóð A couple of years ago, we went on a trip to Iceland, which was amazing, and Kasey was really drawn to the Icelandic tradition of giving books for Christmas, Jólabókaflóð. That year, she gave everyone on her list a book and made bookmarks to go along with them. The leftovers have become her very favorite bookmarks. Starting this year, we are making it a tradition in our little family to exchange books and hot cocoa on Christmas Eve and getting snuggly with them before bed.

In the meantime, we checked out several Christmas books from the library to enjoy for a few weeks. So far, our favorite has been Tonight You Are My Baby, which focuses on Christmas night from Mary’s perspective and, we think does a better job than The Christmas Baby. We will also enjoy some of the wintry books that we were given at baby showers, including The Mitten and The Snowy Day.

Christmas Eve Dinner Christmas Eve is the day when our family traditions will be most blended. A big meal and celebration is traditional in Julio’s family. We already feel so grateful that his mom brought us two bottles of coquito when they visited in October. In Kasey’s family, her dad also made a meal of soup and a big salad (and also usually a roast for the carnivores). This year, we will enjoy coquito, Kasey’s dad’s Hungarian Mushroom Soup, and either a drive-in Mass or streaming Mass, hopefully at Midnight.

Gingerbread Alpacas Kasey loves making Smitten Kitchen’s spicy gingerbread and will miss making sugar cookies with her mom this year. We were gifted a couple of alpaca cookie cutters and a llama cookie cutter last year, so the perfect combination of all of these things will be making alpaca and llama Christmas cookies for friends and neighbors this season.

Lights Finally, we are putting up lights as much as we can. We found 500 feet of Christmas lights when we were cleaning out the barn, so that will go a long way. (Metaphorically. Literally, it will go 500 feet.)

We hope that you all have ways to make this Christmas season cozy and special. What are your traditions? Let us know in the comments.