When I began my beekeeping journey about 4 years ago, I had all sorts of visions of what would be in store: Fresh honey... check. The occasional sting... check. Stress, joy, wonder... check, check, check. Hauling 8 new packages of bees and hive equipment to the yard in my ice fishing sled during the largest April snowfall on record... Not so much.
Bee delivery day was set for Saturday, April 14, however as the week progressed due to the newly issued blizzard warning, our supplier decided to push the dates back and play the weekend by ear. The storm roared in on time Friday afternoon and snow estimates were all over the map. As it turned out, there was a break in the storm mid-day Saturday and I was able to head north to pick up the packages. Normally, the gals have no trouble riding in the bed of the truck with the cover down, but with these temps - I was driving Ms. Daisy(s).
Transportation was not the only problem that was created by the unseasonably cold temperatures - in fact, it was just the start. Because of the cold and high winds, I made the decision not to put the gals in the hive right away. The hive bodies are set up ahead of time with frames of drawn comb that have leftover honey and pollen in them from another hive. Without a colony of bees in the hive keeping them warm, the frames of honey are very cold to frozen. If we dumped the packages into the cold hive bodies the honey could radiate cold for days like an ice block in an ice box and the bees could freeze. So, problem #2 was how do we efficiently transport 8 hive bodies down from the bee yard, which is now covered in varying depths of snow, and pre-heat the hive bodies? The thought crossed my mind to try to drive the 4-wheeler up the hill to the bee yard, however seeing that I had gotten it stuck the previous weekend with exponentially less snow, I knew it was going to be a manual labor operation. I dug the old ice fishing sled out of the shed and trudged up to the bee yard.
I had to take pause for a moment when I got to the yard - The snow was falling and blowing so heavily and the prairie was dancing away...
It looked like an incredibly beautiful January day.
Unfortunately, it's April.
I gathered up the hive bodies and two by two, we headed back to the garage to warm them up. Our garage is not heated so problem #3 was figuring out how to efficiently heat up these frames of honey overnight without bringing them indoors (the thought did cross my mind). In the end, a jerry-rigged Buddy Heater underneath the big stack of hives did the trick. The buddy heater is now covered in honey drips but no worse for wear.
The frames weren't the only thing that needed to stay warm overnight - the bees did as well. When the bees are in an established colony full of thousands of other bees, they have no trouble keeping warm through the long winter. They gather together in a tight cluster and shiver thier flight muscles to generate friction and, thus, heat. These small packages of bees could certainly keep warm for a little while, but there would be risk of losing a significant number of bees if left outside overnight. Without any other options, we decided that the girls could have a sleepover in our office. We may have a few stragglers flying around the house, but it's a small price to pay.
Sunday came and conditions seemed to be getting worse, not better. I had to leave town for work on Monday so waiting another day wasn't going to be an option. I began hauling my warmed hive bodies back to the yard - an excellent workout, by the way - and soon we were prepared to take the bees up. Bucky helped to get all of the packages outside and bundled up in the sled, and off we went.
I can't imagine what they were thinking when they hit that cold air - just 6 days earlier they left a nice almond farm in sunny California.
When we hive package bees we spray the package down with sugar water to preoccupy them and keep them from flying when they are dumped into the hive body. Problem #4: In these temps there was no way we were going to do that. The gals were already about to take the Polar Plunge, the least we could do is keep them dry. We would have to work very quickly however, to minimize flying. Bucky tried to take a video of the hiving process, but it was even too cold for iPhones to work. Go figure.
The bees get dumped (yes, literally) into the now warm hive bodies, and the frames are put back in place. We want the queen, still in her little cage, to be released when the workers are ready to give her a hand. We remove the cork from the end of the cage and replace it with a mini marshmallow. The workers eat the marshmallow to release her, which gives them even more time to recognize her pheromone - although in this case, they have had plenty of quality time together due to the storm. After each package is installed, they are supplied with pollen and a bucket of sugar water to simulate nectar. Then we close them up and hope for the best. Typically I would check on them the next day to make sure that the queen has been released, but since I was heading out of town it would have to wait until mid-week.
It was a long three days of waiting and wondering but when I returned I had 8 successful colonies just humming along. The weather had improved significantly and the gals were already finding pollen and bringing it into the hive. The queens had all been released and accepted into the colony, and all were laying eggs - a great sign! Now it should be smooth sailing though the spring as the weather warms, they build their population and just do bee things.
It was one wild ride for these Californina girls, but they all made it through perfectly.