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Winter is Coming… A Call for a Vigilant Beekeeper

It seems as though winter is finally establishing itself throughout the Chicago area. Last Saturday I was on my way to the Cook-Dupage Beekeepers monthly meeting, and had struggled my way almost to Harlem on 290. Then I received a call from my business partner Thad Smith, “Cancelled man. Go home, take a day off, you need one with the last 4 days we’ve had.” He was right, and if I were to break down my feelings it was 80-20% split between elation and disappointment.

Even with the terrible weather, I was looking forward to seeing so many beekeepers and commiserating the highs and lows of the past bee season. I was also scheduled to give a talk about winter preparations, and because I had put them down in my notes, I can actually relay them to you too.

Beekeepers should be in tune with their environment. You know of those that are, the beekeepers that know within a day the coming nectar flow, the exact day to split, the time of the approaching dearth, etc. They have this incredible and precise internal clock that set those beekeepers apart from others. I feel that while I’ve made strides in the area, there is still a long way to go to reach their status. Unfortunately, I feel that some of us northern beekeepers are far too eager to pack away our smoker and hive tool for the season, and along with it, our beekeeping responsibilities. Just because the weather has dictated that we can’t ‘crack open a hive’ doesn’t mean that we are done with beekeeping.

We as northern Illinois beekeepers have it doubly tough, as our area goes through two dearths. Our first typically happens in the waning stages of summer, when the nectar seems to suddenly dry up. The bees then gorge themselves on any stored honey inside the hive. The second, seldom-considered dearth lasts a little longer, that being the Chicago winter months. While this time is not usually considered a “dearth”, it absolutely fits the definition and needs to be considered as such, and because it is even more severe, the preparations that need to be taken by beekeepers are paramount.

So that being said, here are 3 priorities you should focus on:

“Cram the Hive.” More bees mean warm bees. Make sure your hive is populous before the cold weather sets in, and by doing so you are setting you and your bees up for success.

“Channel your inner Grandmother at the dinner table.” Do your bees have enough food? Are you sure? How about a little more? Come on just another helping. Look at them, they’re peckish! Wasting away, practically, like some of those model bees you see in magazines.

“Harness the Wind.” We can’t control the cold, but the wind we can at least divert. Many beekeepers do not protect their hives from the brutal winds that the winter can bring. Set up wind blocks with hay bales, bags of leaves, or any other materials that will create a ‘dead air’ space. Also, make sure those older hive bodies have cracks and open air spaces filled, so the core temperature can be maintained.

Can you do more? Absolutely. You can use the latest and greatest ideas that beekeepers are creating. Insulation, warmers, and the like can be tried. But…

I don’t want to.

I want to establish some “tough love”. It’s a philosophy that is hard to subscribe to. We love our bees at Westside Bee Boyz (WBB), but it will not do ourselves, our clients, or our bees any favors by propping up bees that are not cut out for our unique climate and its difficulties. It is important that we, as beekeepers, determine what our survivor stock is, and not merely propping up colonies that are less likely or genetically ill-equipped to handle the regional challenges. In our last blog post we talked about what we at WBB stand for and this is I feel is another case as evidence towards our mission of developing and sustaining healthy upper Midwest bees: diligence and tough love.

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