Count all the bees in the hive

Welcome to the end of beekeeping winter. With March around the corner beekeepers everywhere are thinking about spring and flowers and nectar and bees. It is common practice to worry about weather, flower blooms, hives, and equipment when you are a beekeeper, and I am no exception. Did we prepare for winter well enough to see the bees through this part of the season? Will the flowers bloom soon enough, or should I put some food in the hive? Do I have enough equipment for the year, and is it ready to go?

Hives in the snow
My hives Jupter2 and Titan2 on February 1, 2021. ©Erik Brown

So far my ten hives seem to be surviving our rather cold new year. We had our first day over 60 F (15 C) this past week. Normally we have some warm days in January, often topping 70 F at least once. That just didn’t happen this year so it may take some extra weeks for spring to arrive. The bees seemed happy to be out and about in our 3-4 days of warmer weather, especially when it was over 65 F and sunny outside.

Growing Degree Days

There is a field called Phenology that involves the study of biological life cycles, and within this is the term Growing Degree Days, or GDD. GDD tracks the number of degrees above a base temperature since the start of the year. Different plants need a certain amount of warmth before they bloom. A common base is 50 F, with a simple calculation as the average daily temperature minus 50 for each day. Add up the number for each day, if any, and you have GDD. There are more complex methods you can find online, though this is a good starting point.

Each plant has a GDD value for when flowering blooms are likely. The early Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum) had a first bloom GDD around 34, with full bloom around 42 (this from the The Ohio State University GDD calendar (using the zip code of 44691). There is a chart on the Wikipedia page for GDD in Celsius using a base temperature of 10 C. For our yard using this chart, we look forward to Witch Hazel (GDD < 1), Forsythia (GDD 1-27), and Norway Maple (GDD 30-50) as early bloomers.

So far this year, in my area of Virginia, our GDD is zero (0). Even our 60+ day had a low around 27, such that the daily average was in the mid-40’s (around 8 C). So blooms for the bees are many days away, unless there is some Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) blooming in the woods somewhere. There are a few Candytuft (Iberis) flowers out front, though I have never seen bees on them. Our weather forecast for the next 10 days has no average temps above 50 F, let alone 10 C, so I’m not sure when our big bloomers will emerge.

Over the last five years, according to my Bloom where you are planted page, our maple trees and other plants have bloomed in February. So this will be a late blooming year, putting more stress on any bees out looking for pollen and nectar.

Checking the Hives

Speaking of bees, this really is the time when beekeepers in the U.S., myself included, make sure their bees are flying. As you can see in the below image, they were flying well this past week. I suspect these particular hives will continue to be fine, and hope to look inside in two or three weeks to check on their progress. You may recall that I had a hive swarm on March 17 last year, which I think is pretty unlikely for 2021.

My hives enjoying some warm weather on February 24, 2021. ©Erik Brown

There are two hives I am concerned about. One is the left side of a double nuc, shown here in the image. I pushed these nucs side-by-side and insulated them together to help conserve warmth. I am sure this helped, though I worry that having the entrances side by side could encourage bees to drift into only one hive. Indeed, I typically only see bees flying from the right-hand entrance, with the left side pretty quiet.

The other hive of concern is my small top bar hive, not shown here. I knew this colony was a little weak going into winter, and did my best to feed and insulate the hive.

I looked inside both hives a couple weeks ago when the temperature was near 50 F, and founds bees and food readily available. So either they just don’t like to socialize or they don’t have the population to do a lot of flying outside the hive. We will see if they make it over the next few weeks.

Prepping the Equipment

The final beekeeper worry is about equipment. With my 10 hives, I could easily have swarms or split the hives up to 15 or more colonies. I don’t really want to do this, though perhaps I should have more equipment just in case. And so the circular thinking goes. I do have some nuc bottom boards that I need to paint, and some boxes and frames to help expand the existing hives. I have a couple top bar hives I can use as well. I haven’t decide whether and what to purchase yet. It is always useful to have extra boxes and frames available.

Count all the bees in the hive

Our title comes from the song Return to Pooh Corner, a delightful song by Kenny Loggins that includes this line. According to the site Musix Match, the chorus consists of the following lines.

So help me if you can, I've got to get
Back to the house at Pooh Corner by one
You'd be surprised, there's so much to be done
Count all the bees in the hive
Chase all the clouds from the sky
Back to the days of Christopher Robin and Pooh

For me, this song captures some of the joy in seeing the world through the eyes of a child, and for making time to have fun. It is easy to get caught up in “adulting” and forget that there is so much to learn and enjoy, no matter your age.

That, of course, and the need to count the bees and make sure all are present and ready for spring.

May you prosper and find honey.

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