The winter of 2010-2011 was not a terribly hard one by our standards. The lowest nightime temperature that we saw was only about -13 degrees F. What set this winter apart from the average was the lack of a significant thawing period. Typically, in January or February, we have a thaw that brings us one or two days of sunshine, accompanied by temperatures in the upper 40s or even the low 50s. That did not happen this year. We did have some warm weather in late December that took away most of our snow, but those days were accompanied by rain, drizzle and fog that kept the bees inside. The result of these weather conditions is that most bees that were over-wintered in this region are dead. There was a survey taken by the Michigan Beekeepers' association that was reported by the local NPR stations. Their findings; small scale beekeepers (those who did not take their bees out of state for the winter months) lost all of their bees, or were lucky enough to have one out of ten hives survive.
This did not come as a surprise to us here at Teakwood Organics. We were very aware of the situation this winter. You see, healthy bees absolutely will not defecate in the hive, so they need to take flight in order to do so. As was explained by the MBA's president, the bees simply died of dysentery, due to the fact that they were confined to their hives for over four months, unable to take even one cleansing flight. We hoped so much for a thaw, knowing that just one cleansing flight could carry our bees through 'til spring, but it didn't come. The result here was that we lost 35% of our bees, something that we found very disparaging until we realized that most others had lost all of theirs.
It isn't rocket science figuring out why most of our bees are alive while most of the others' bees are dead, common sense tells us why. The fact is, it wasn't us who realized how to let bees survive the most severe winter weather conditions, it was Emile Warré. At least 70 years ago, he knew how bees could survive the worst winters, and it is to him that we give all the credit for the knowledge.
As beekeepers, we must do our best to prepare our bees for winter. We can make it so they stay dry, by ventilating our Langstroth or Kenya top-bar hives (the most commonly used hives in the U.S.). We can make sure they don't starve, by letting them keep significant stores. But only in a Warré hive can we keep them dry, while keeping them warm with minimum stores. Hives that are too large, and/or are designed in such a way that they require lots of ventilation in order to prevent moisture build-up, cause the bees to consume large amounts of stores in order to keep warm.
A beehive is really not much different than our own homes. Could we stay warm and dry in our houses if all of the windows were cracked open? Sure we could. But what would that require? Lots of energy, right? Our furnaces would run constantly! But our homes don't work that way, do they? Our homes are designed much like a Warré hive. Excessive moisture, from things like cooking, taking showers, doing laundry, etc., is absorbed by our attics or ceilings and then vented to the outside. In this way, we are kept warm and dry without the excessive consumption of energy.
In much the same way that beehives are similar to our own homes, bees are similar to us. The more food we consume, the more we must relieve ourselves. It is the same with any living creature. If bees must consume large amounts of honey in order to stay warm in their hives, they must make cleansing flights more often. If they are unable to do so because of the weather, they die. It's that simple.
Our Warré hives, made from cedar to dispel moisture, insulated with a moisture absorbing quilt box, and sized so that the bees can more easily stay warm, are the reason that most of our bees lived when so many others died. Our bees survived the winter on only about 25 lbs. of stores, not the 100+ lbs. required in other hives and because of that, they lived through the long, unforgiving winter of 2010-2011.