When my husband and I were first interested in beekeeping, we went to a “Beekeeping for Beginners” workshop. It was a couple hours long and so incredibly overwhelming. I remember being frustrasted whenever anyone asked a question, no one would EVER give a straight answer. You’d get answers like, “Well, there are a couple ways you could do it…” or “Just because I do it this way, doesn’t mean it’s right.” As a newbie, I just wanted one person to tell me ONE way to do things. I could figure out all these supposed “other” ways later. However, now I understand. It’s not an exact science because every hive and season are different. What works for one hive one year might not work on a different hive even in the same year. And now I’ve become that person who can’t give a short answer about anything bee-related!
So I was going to give you a little glimpse into this by just summarizing our plans for our hives this year. I thought I’d run through what our plans were to begin with and how they have already changed. I’m sure what we plan to do now, will not even be what we eventually do. So I offer this, not to confuse you, but you shed some light on why I can never answer any questions directly and why I can never give a short answer!
After attending Megan Milbrath’s workshop at the MI Beekeeper’s Conference earlier in the month, I was sold on this idea of splitting hives into many nucs and then overwintering a dozen or so small ones and only a few full hives. This seems to be gaining popularity in parts of Canada and New England. The benefit? If the average hive loss is 30% (higher for us) then you’re simply spreading your eggs among many baskets, so to speak. Let’s say I go into winter with 3 hives and I lose one (30% loss). I have two remaining. But if I split two of those three hives into 2 nucs each, I could go into winter with one hive and four nucs. Let’s say I lose two (a little higher than our 30% average), I’m still left with 3 hives ready to go in the spring. The downside? A nuc is not a full hive. A nuc is only about 5 frames, so you have to feed them all winter and also keep them warm-ish as they aren’t big enough to really form much of a cluster. So keeping them alive might be easier said than done.
This brings us to step #2: A bee house. My husband has been doing a lot of research about European bee houses. These are sheds, basically, where people store their hives in the winter. The hive entrance obviously faces outside, so the bees can leave for cleansing flights. We’d really just be stacking nucs together and keeping them out of the wind – no heaters or anything like that. Although, I did have the genius idea of combining it with the chicken coop so that the bees could benefit from the small amount of heat the birds give off.
We spoke with some seasoned beekeepers about this over-wintering-nuc plan and one thing that occurred to me is that it might keep bees alive through the winter, but it does nothing in the way of breeding hardier bees. We would be feeding and keeping them warm, this will not necessarily produce winter-hardy bees.
Another issue to consider is the temperature, moisture, and circulation within a bee house. We were envisioning something more along the lines of a lean-to, but we’d have to be careful that it doesn’t get too warm, things stay dry, and there is adequate airflow.
On top of everything, what if this summer is unseasonably hot? wet? dry? cool? Or what if next winter is unseasonably mild? cold? windy? You get the idea.
So it’s not a science.
Here are some things we know for sure.
- We ordered 4 packages of bees from the south.
- We’re hoping to be able to split each package at least once. If they all thrive, this would mean we’d go into the winter with 8 hives.
- We’re hoping to requeen this summer. From a statistical standpoint, nucs with local queens who have survived one winter have the best chance to survive again. Packages that have been requeened with queens from survivor stock have the next best chance of survival and just straight-up packages have the least likelihood. So we’re going to spend the early part of the summer learning about queen rearing and obtain some local queens.
- We are both still really interested in the idea of a bee house, so assuming we do end the summer with 8 hives, we’ll probably experiment with 2-3 of them. We are moving and rebuilding our chicken coop anyway, so adding a lean-to on the side would not be a huge problem.
We pick up the packages May 9th, so we’ll just have to see where the bees take us!