Winter has finally come to Florida, and it's time for all of our hard work preparing our hives to pay off. Our bees are extra vulnerable at this time, but we've done everything we can for them. The rest is up to them.
Even in the southern reaches of Florida, our bees hunker down to get through the height of winter. Bees overwinter by clustering in the middle of the hive to conserve warmth. This cluster slowly moves throughout the hive over the course of the cold season, eating their stored honey to sustain themselves.
Bee farmers can help their hives by providing insulation and building structures to keep the winter winds off of the hives, but they'll also need to make sure the bees have sufficient ventilation. Bees need oxygen, plus they need to eliminate the moisture that accumulates during respiration. Damp conditions can lead to mildew as well as absorb the bees' body heat, leading to hypothermia and death.
Their time with the Brazilian Pepper bloom means they should have plenty of high-quality food stored away to last them throughout the winter, but we still check, just in case. There are so many dangers that face an overwintering hive that we really can't assume anything or leave it to chance.
The clustered hive is at an increased risk of disease and infestation from the Varroa mites. They are under such close, confined conditions that the mites have an easy time transferring from bee to bee. Not only do the mites directly weaken the bees, feeding off of them like a tick or leech, but they also provide a very convenient vector for viral infections to strike the entire hive.
At this point, there is only so much we can do to help. We have to trust that we've adequately prepared our hives to keep the Varroa populations down by introducing strong queens and entering the winter with a low starting population.
The one thing we can do is make sure all our hives have accepted their new queens. Any queen that hasn’t been accepted must be replaced. We purchased almost 300 new queens from Georgia, California, and Hawaii. When they cost somewhere between $20 and $30 each, it's quite an investment. We carefully choose the right breeds for our queens to ensure they and our hives are healthy and productive.
Italian queens are a popular choice for us, since they birth highly productive hives that will raise brood (baby bees) later in the autumn than most. The drawback of this breed for northern bee farmers is that they don't form tight clusters, and therefore don't overwinter as well. They'll need to store and consume more food to maintain their body heat and the numbers from their autumn population bump.
As our bees huddle up for the winter, we get to work on all of the projects we haven't had time for during our busier seasons. We've built a new addition on to our honey house and erected a few sheds and outbuildings for storage. We've also hauled in a ton of lumber and prepared the grounds for future buildings.
We've spent a lot of time cleaning, painting, and maintaining our equipment to prepare for the move to the California almond groves. The feeders, pallets, and even the bee boxes themselves go through a lot of wear and tear just from normal use, and we can't afford to have something break while we truck our hives from one coast to the other.
For many people, this time of year is reserved for quiet reflection and getting together with family. Of course, we do this too! But we're really starting to feel the excitement building as our hives prove that our hard work is all worth it, and we prepare for the next big bloom.