I had an opportunity to hear Mike Palmer from French Hill Apiaries in St. Albans, VT speak in November 2014 about keeping bees in the frozen north. Typically a Vermont winter would be as bad or worse than ours here in the Kalamazoo area. After the winter of 2013 I found myself re-thinking overwintering in Michigan. Although I have kept bees through ten winters, none had ever been as severe as that winter.
I never bothered to do anything special for overwintering, like wrapping the hives because it didn’t seem to make any difference either way. Well, 2013 changed all that. I lost all my hives that winter. It just got too cold. Traditionally beekeepers at or above the 45th parallel always have to wrap hives. Beekeepers at or below the 40th parallel don’t need to do anything special for overwintering. Here we find ourselves at the 43rd parallel, which means sometimes we need to and sometimes we can get away without. I decided that it is better to be safe than sorry. From now on, I will prepare like I am further north, which brings me back to Mike Palmer. Vermont is mostly a bit further north than us, so what works for him, ought to work for us.
Mike challenged a few deeply held ideas I had about what you want to see (or hear) in deep winter in our beehives. He is into sustainable beekeeping. I really like his ideas. He is a commercial beekeeper, so he doesn’t do things strictly naturally, but someday he might, he is attempting to get there. He is a practical beekeeper. He has allowed the bees to naturally select for survivability in his region and climate. There are differences in climate between Vermont and Michigan, namely the humidity we have in the summer and we have more large commercial agriculture than they have because of the terrain there, which is unsuitable for large tracts of corn and soybeans. But, the winters are of similar duration and temperatures, and snowfall is comparable, especially in extreme years like 2013. Mike does not bring in queens from other regions, he raises his own, so he has northern hardy strains. Two things struck me about his overwintering:
- He found over time only the dark bees (mostly Carnolians) survived the winters, the Italians were not winter hardy for him. AND
- The quiet bees survived the winter. What he meant by that was that they did not make any noise in the cluster, no buzzing. I had always been told you want to hear that buzzing to know they are alive in the winter. He says that the quiet clusters are more dormant, use less fuel and have better survivability.
So, this January I am hoping for quiet hives, with little activity. Mike Palmer says that in severe northern regions like Russia and Poland bees can survive a whole winter without a cleansing flight, but they have to be an adapted strain. Probably Italians are not suitable for that. My goal is to identify what does make overwintering successful for me and the club hives, and to propagate our own replacement queens from those hives to reach a level of sustainability where we are not bringing in outside bees to our apiary.
The method of queen rearing I use in my own hives and the club apiary is Mel Disselkoen’s “on the spot” queen rearing – or my own version of it. Mel will be at our bee school this year talking about his method. This is really a natural method of getting your bees to make their own queens. Mel has a book out describing his method, and Wicwas Press has “A Year in the Out-Apiary” by G. M. Dolittle, which inspired much of Mel’s research. Both books will be available at bee school for purchase. .