Bees are fascinating.

Typically, a worker bee can live five to six weeks. Worker bees make up the majority of the hive, and are all female. Their life cycle is generally like this:

  • Nurse bees: After a bee is born, nurse bees immediately clean the cell the bee emerged from, so that it can be used again. They secrete royal jelly from their glands and feed the young larva (day 1-12).

  • House bees: They produce wax that extrudes from the abdomen for comb construction. They have many tasks to perform, including taking the nectar and pollen from the foraging bees and storing in comb, attending to the queen, removing old bees and guarding the hive (days 10-22).

  • Foraging bees: They fly out of the hive and gather nectar and pollen from blooming plants and bring back to hive. They can fly up to three-mile radius away from hive (days 20-42).

The remarkable winter bee

Winter bees are different than summer bees. Their life expectancy is more than four times greater – living for about six months. Even the makeup of their body is different. They produce a compound called viellogenin (which helps them store food reserves in their body), lower levels of hormones, enlarged food glands and higher levels of sugar and fat in their blood. All this results in bees that are better able to survive a long, cold winter.

Winter bees are remarkable. They gather very close together, all winter long, in order to keep the queen at a comfortable, life-sustaining temperature. Their main purpose is to keep her alive until spring, when the cycle will start over.

Bees do not hibernate. They remain active all winter long. They cluster around the queen and “shiver” their flight muscles to create heat, keeping her at a consistent 92 degrees.

As the outside temperature ebbs and flows, the bees tighten and loosen their cluster size (to manage temperature) and move around the hive in order to be near honey and pollen stores.

As beekeepers, we do everything we can to help prepare the hives for winter. We make sure that they have ample food stores by feeding the bees supplemental sugar water and pollen. Ideally, each single hive weighs about 85-95 pounds going into winter.

We make sure the hive has proper ventilation and a moisture board to wick away water vapor. Bees create a lot of moisture in the hive, and if they can’t get rid of it, they could get wet and freeze.

We wrap the hives in a black poly wrap/tar paper. This prevents wind from blowing through the cracks, chilling the hive. The black absorbs the sunlight, offering a little solar gain to the hive.

We are extremely thankful when there is a warm day (like the 40 degrees we just had in February!), so that the bees can reposition themselves within the hive, fly outside of the hive to go to the bathroom (they have been holding it the whole time!) and remove any dead bees from the hive.

January’s beekeeping tasks

Travis checked about 200 of our hives, and heard a healthy hum in all of them. He has been building five-frame nuc boxes out of wood for our starter-colony customers.

Our Minnesota-hardy starter colony sales have been selling well. We are over half sold out for the 2020 season.

I have been working on filling custom jars with honey, packaging them into boxes and mailing them out. Each box mailed has a beautiful small postcard in it advertising “custom jars that tell your story.” Thank you, Haas Printing, for printing these!

We should have realized this sooner, but we are almost out of our SolarHoney jar inventory. At the last minute, we redesigned our SolarHoney jars, had some back and forth with our jar company, and will thankfully be receiving the jars this week (a month sooner than originally quoted). Now we just need to fill them with SolarHoney before we go to Texas. This has to be finished before we leave because once we return to Minnesota, we are so busy with our hives that we do not have time to work in the honey house.

We will be leaving soon for Texas to raise queens. We look forward to returning in the spring to healthy hives ready to smash a 2020 season honey crop.

Travis Bolton is a 2001 Park Rapids High School graduate. Chiara’s interest in honeybees began on the Tibetan Plateau, where she lived for five years. The couple has a honey house in Menahga and hives in Sebeka, Akeley, Midway and around the Twin Cities. Bolton Bees can be reached at www.boltonbees.com or boltonbees@gmail.com.