The backyard beekeeping business began in Ohio more than 150 years ago. After all that time, beekeepers still don’t agree on what to do with their hives once the weather turns cold.
There’s a saying among beekeepers: “If you talk to 100 beekeepers, you’re going to get 101 opinions.”
Larry Theurer keeps bees at the Cuyahoga County Fairgrounds. His hives are all ready for the winter now. But the unseasonably warm weather a few weeks ago meant it was still business as usual for the bees.
Mark Vandayburg keeps honeybees at his home in Westlake. He helped put feeders on the hives at the fairgrounds.
Theurer uses some smoke to calm down the bees. Bees communicate using pheromones. The smoke covers up the pheromones. It’s the insect equivalent of trying to yell over loud music.
“If one would panic because I’m in the hive, it can’t pass it along because the smoke is covering it,” Theurer said.
When we look inside the hive, it’s clear this particular colony hasn’t been very productive.
“They did a little bit of comb, but there’s absolutely no honey in it,” Theurer said.
Some extra help
Bees store honey and use it as a food source during the winter. But lately, bees are having a hard time finding enough pollen to make the honey they need to survive the cold, much less make enough extra for people.
Reed Johnson teaches beekeeping at Ohio State’s Agricultural Technical Institute in Wooster. This year, Johnson’s helping his bees out with a backup food source: 500 pounds of cake icing.
“We’re going to go out and plop some of that on top of our colonies,” Johnson said. “That’s kind of an insurance policy.”
In Johnson’s observation hive, the bees cluster together, keeping it a toasty 92 degrees.
“If you put your hand up here, it’s actually quite warm,” Johnson said. “It’s amazing, they’ll cluster in a ball around the queen, and just consume honey and shiver and keep warm that way.”
As long as the bees have enough to eat during the winter, Johnson said, they’ll be fine.
“It’s not freezing to death that kills bees,” Johnson said. “It’s running out of food and then freezing to death that kills them.”
February is an especially critical month in the bees’ winter.
“It’s in February that they’ll really burn through huge amounts of this honey that they’ve stored, keeping this nest warm so they can raise that next generation of bees that will go out and visit the flowers in March and get the colony through the next season,” Johnson said.
Johnson says replacing a colony can cost upwards of $120.
'Little space ships'
Beekeepers and pollinator enthusiasts in Northeast Ohio meet up on a regular basis to compare notes on what works and what doesn’t.
Annette Birt-Clark keeps four apiaries in Cleveland. She’s expecting a colder-than-usual winter, so she’s going to give her bees extra food. But one of her main concerns every year is wind.
“I have a rooftop apiary in Ohio City, so that’s a whole other consideration because the wind levels three stories up are much more severe than my hives that are on the ground,” Clark said.
To protect her hives from the wind, Clark wraps them in tar paper. The paper’s dark color has the added benefit of absorbing heat from the sun.
Ann Cicarella has a more elaborate approach. She’s president of the Medina County Beekeepers Association.
“I take window screening that I staple on the side, and then I put in the pink insulation that you use in houses and I do more screening, then I staple on the top,” Cicarella said.
The insulation keeps water droplets from forming and dripping down on the bees. Cicarella also wraps the lower two-thirds of the hive in Mylar, a type of insulating fabric with a metallic shine.
“They do look like little space ships, so I don’t know, maybe Elton John is playing a little song along with it,” Cicarella joked.
The role of luck
But even with all the insulating, there are no guarantees. Annual success rates mostly depend on weather, location and the individual hive. Parasites can bring down entire colonies. Pesticides can make the bees’ home toxic and unlivable.
Even for an experienced beekeeper like Mark Vandayburg, coming out of winter with healthy bees often depends on luck.
“I pulled lots of honey off my hives this year, and I know others who didn’t,” Vandayburg said.
But for Vandayburg and other beekeepers, getting the bees through the winter isn’t just about the sweet payoff later on.
“It’s part of my day,” Vandayburg said. “I really look forward to going out and seeing those bees in the morning. They’ll be flying, I can see them streaming up over my garage in the sunlight and I’ll say, ‘Today’s a great day.’”