Not All Hives Survived This Bee-rutal Wisconsin Winter

Mar 22, 2019

Bees play an important role in our — and nearly every — corner of the world. Eco- and food systems depend on their power to pollinate.

With bees already at risk, what sort of impact does extreme weather like the polar vortex have on honey bees in Wisconsin?

In Wauwatosa, some of honey bee hobbyist Brad DeLanty's four hives — each a series of stacked wooden boxes called Langstroth systems — didn't fare so well.

The Firefly Apiary. This is where Linda Reynolds (right) teaches beekeeping. Brad DeLanty (left) is one of her former students.
Credit Susan Bence

"This past weekend I came and unfortunately these three hives are gone. So, I actually knocked all the dead bees out," he explains.

DeLanty's fourth hive still shows signs of bee life — albeit diminished.

"Between the first big cold snap and the second big cold snap, this hive was thriving. I came out on Saturday and I probably have a fist-sized cluster of bees in there. So I did an emergency feeding, which is basically sugar fondant placed right over the top of them," he says.

Emergency food (sugar fondant) that Brad DeLanty would help get his bees through the winter.
Credit Susan Bence

But DeLanty doesn't blame his loss solely on the polar vortex. Based on his log book, he says he likely didn't manage mites last summer. Parasitic mites can hook onto a bee and weaken it, "so, to me, the more likely culprit was the varroa mite," he says.

DeLanty has learned, and says he continues to learn, from Linda Reynolds. The Milwaukee County Extension instructor teaches beekeeping just a few minutes' walk from his hives.  

"We started hives in here ... It was loaded with buckthorn, but it had wonderful lilacs," she says.

A decade later more than a dozen hives dot the slope.

Given the right conditions, Reynolds says, bees can weather a brutal winter. First, they need plenty to eat. Second, they have to stick together in clusters.

"The cluster moves throughout the hive because their food is throughout the hive. So, the cluster moves with the food and they keep the queen warm," she explains.

However, Reynolds says that doesn't mean bees never leave the hive in winter.

What a thriving honey bee hive looks like.
Credit Brad DeLanty

"They like to take cleansing flights on days that are like 35 degrees and it's sunny and the snow is sparkling with the sunlight," she says.

What's a cleansing flight? Bees like to keep their living spaces clean. "They normally don't defecate in the hive. But there is something called nosema, which is honey bee dysentery, and you don't want to find that inside the hive," she says.

Reynolds says there are ways to manage the disease — by keeping your equipment clean and constantly inspecting your hives.

Given the myriad complexities of beekeeping and her years of experience, Reynolds' mantra is: "You want to be ahead of them not behind them." And that means knowing a lot about bee biology and phenology — that's the study of the life cycles of plants and animals and how they change.

"When I was first learning beekeeping, they went by a calendar. And you can't do beekeeping by a calendar [now] — you have to do it by what's happening outside," she says. "So know phenology and just being ahead of them all of the time. That's the hard part."

Watch your step, it's a bee crossing!
Credit Susan Bence

As for disciple Brad DeLanty, he removed the bees that didn't make it, leaving their honey in place for his next batch of bees.

"That's still beautiful honey. That's actually some food source, so they'll be able to take this in right away. And then they start foraging when the leaves start blooming here," he says.

DeLanty calls his hobby an expensive passion that he hopes will make some difference to a threatened ecosystem.

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