Keeping Bees Through Winter
Christy Hemenway's new book, Advanced Top Bar Beekeeping: Next Steps for the Thinking Beekeeper came off press just before the holidays. In it, Christy Hemenway helps the top bar beekeeper focus on supporting the honeybees' natural systems through their second year and beyond. In this excerpt from Chapter 5, "Honey--Sweetness and Light = Food", Christy explains how much honey bees need in order to survive the winter and how to know if you can harvest honey in the spring.
I spent a long while observing top bar hives and top bar hive beekeepers before I decided there was a reliable answer to this question. And it still depends, of course, upon many factors that are specific to your location: the most obvious being the size of the colony, and the length and severity of the local winter.
The bees’ ability to store honey is also impacted by the length of the foraging season or bloom, the weather during that season, the amount of forage in their locale and the health and vigor of the colony. After combining my own experience in Maine with that of other successful top bar hive beekeepers throughout the US and abroad, it seems fair to say that 6 to 8 full bars of capped honey will sustain a top bar hive through a “typical” winter. A colony that has that much honey likely also has several bars of brood comb that have been backfilled with honey as well, and together, this seems to do it.
Typically a top bar hive beekeeper waits until the spring of the hive’s second year to harvest honey, leaving the bees as much of their own natural honey as possible to overwinter on for their first winter. This is a good practice to follow, since honey is, after all, what honeybees need to eat to get them through the winter! In their first year, a new colony has plenty to contend with just to get started as a colony and prepare to survive that first winter.
But in the spring of their second year, if there is still honey in the hive, and there are blossoms in the field, one might be so bold as to consider some of the bees’ surplus honey to be your own reward. And such a superior honey it is, too. Honey produced by healthy bees doing their own thing on their own clean natural wax is some of the cleanest and healthiest and best honey you could ask for. It’s also as local as it can get,being from bees that live in your own backyard. And if you don’t heat it when you harvest it, then it remains as full of rich natural goodness as it can possibly be.
Yes!!! A Harvest!
So let’s say your hive has come through the winter with flying colors, and even survived April, that cruelest month in beekeeping, and now you are back into bee season. There is plenty of forage, and there is capped honey still in the hive as well. It’s spring, probably May, possibly June; it will depend on where you live. This is the time of the year when it makes the most sense to remove honey from your hive.
The season still stretches out before you. Harvesting a moderate amount of honey at this time allows the bees to replace their stores during the summer foraging season. Harvesting most of the hive’s honey late in the season deprives the bees of their stores at a time when they cannot reliably replace them, and too often this is the reason beekeepers must feed to prevent starvation.
For complete information on Top Bar Beekeeping buy The Thinking Beekeeper: A Guide to Natural Beekeeping in Top Bar Hives and
Advanced Top Bar Beekeeping by Christy Hemenway