The Barren Weeks

The period between the end of winter and the beginning of spring is exceptionally hard on the bees.  As temperatures warm during the day, the cluster breaks and the bees begin taking cleansing flights as well as the first foraging flights of the season. Unfortunately, these are The Barren Weeks where pollen and nectar are in short supply.  Many keepers have to make emergency feedings to keep the bees alive and sometimes, no matter what you do, it doesn’t work.

Few things are as disheartening as the loss of a hive. Last year, the bees died from a suspected combination of mites and starvation. Despite battling the varrora and ensuring the bees had more than enough honey for the winter, the girls did not survive. It’s maddening to open a hive and see the cluster frozen on a frame, heads buried in empty cells, while frames of fresh honey sit neglected only one super above them. For whatever reason, they refused to access the food and died inside an empty larder.

Yesterday, the Fiancée and I discovered that the “new” bees were not only still alive, but ready to rock and roll. Hundreds of girls spilled from a gap in the inner cover caused by several large chunks of bee candy and many foragers were returning with overflowing pollen buckets. We added some pollen patties to the top (to give them a protein boost), removed the mouse-guard at the entrance, relocated the remaining candy to the bottom of the hive (to encourage the girls to use the landing strip), and sealed the top of the hive tight. For a while, the bees struggled with the change in entry points, but eventually they figured out where the entry point was located.

Watching them reassess the situation was an education in the intelligence of these insects. Most of the bees were either survivors from the last crop going into the winter or freshly hatched over the chilly months. The cluster broke maybe two weeks ago, so the majority of foragers only knew about the “gap” entrance up top. When it went away, they began inspecting the rest of the hive for access and, once a few discovered the landing strip, started re-orienting themselves. They’d take off, immediately turn to face the hive, and arc back and forth. Then they’d land and repeat the process again from a farther distance. Within minutes, a large number of bees had not only figured things out, but communicated the knowledge with their sisters.

We left them to their re-education with a feeling of optimism. Having opted to let these bees deal with the varrora on their own and only feed them in an emergency, it was exhilarating to know they survived. Better yet, they seemed healthy and eager to get back to work.

Losses are a part of life when keeping bees, but those that make it through the difficult months come out stronger on the other side. As spring approaches, it’s my hope that these battle-tested girls pass their knowledge on to the next generation. But it’s nice to know that, for now, they beat the odds.

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