Thursday, February 12, 2009

Winter Beekeeping

February in the Midwest is the time for beekeepers to try to find a day with warm enough weather to check up on the hives. It is a critical time of year. The bees are running low on the honey they stored (or that the beekeeper left for them) and a hive that runs out of honey in the late winter will not survive. The bees also need protein at this time. A queen bee begins laying eggs again in January and the larvae need protein. That protein comes from the pollen the bees collected over the summer. If there isn't enough of that left, the larvae, or brood as beekeepers call it, will not develop into strong healthy bees. Yesterday was one of those days here in Chicago. Sixty three degrees, sunny and perfect for checking hives.

At the end of our beekeeping season last Fall there were fifty hives in the apiary. Of those fifty, fourteen were still alive yesterday. While that is a heavy loss, it is actually a hopeful sign. There have been years when we lost all our bees.

Just a word here for those who are thinking Colony Collapse Disorder, No, that is not what caused the losses. Honey bees are subject to bacterial infections, fungal infections, parasitic mites and other pests all of which can, at the very least, undermine the health of a beehive. We can't look inside a hive and tell what caused it to fail but there is no shortage of possibilities.

So what went on at the apiary yesterday?

On a warm day in winter honeybees will come outside and fly so it's pretty easy to tell which hives are still OK. Each of the living hives gets opened up and a brief inspection is made to see if the bees have enough honey. If not, one of the dead hives is opened up and frames of honey are taken from there and put into the good hive in a place easy for the bees to reach when they are clustered together on cold days.

So, checked and supplied the hive gets closed up and the bees are ready to get through the next bout of cold weather. With luck we might get all 14 hives to make it until the first spring nectar flow.

Next time - Where do bees come from?

Thursday, February 5, 2009

It's Winter here in Chicago and this is the time of year when beekeepers catch up with everything they didn't have time to do from April until October. Hence my ability to sit down and write this first post. Not that I get to do much beekeeping myself. Besides my own job I am the member of our Co-op that takes care of our day to day business.

I should tell you about our little Honey Co-op. We started out in 2004 as an idea in the minds of three of my (now) friends. That first year we partnered with a local nonprofit to offer job training in beekeeping, selling at farmers markets and the various skills that go along with that. The trainees were people who had spent time in jail and had no prospects for employment ahead of them. It was an eventful year and we did very well for a brand new business but I'm sorry to say that after a couple of years things didn't work out with the nonprofit.

We decided to go ahead on our own in 2006 with 2 of the original trainees who became our regular beekeeping staff. We registered as an agricultural co-op and sold memberships to raise capital to purchase some more hives. Since we don't have the staff or funds to pay trainees ourselves we partnered with another nonprofit to teach beekeeping to their urban farming trainees.

I should mention how lucky we are to have found a large vacant space on the West side of Chicago to have our apiary. It is a city block long and backs up to an abandoned rail line. In addition to beehives we have made a large community garden there for our neighbors and friends to grow food. Through the kindness of the owner, we rent this land for $1.00 per month until it gets sold.

In the coming weeks, I'll tell you more about our co-op, our products and I'm looking forward to writing at length about beeswax and honey.

Until next time.