What do beekeepers do in January? It turns out, not much. Okay, see you next week!
Just kidding. There’s a lot more than meets the eye. So much more, in fact, that modern beekeepers now use sophisticated tools like thermal imaging to check up on their hives.
Beekeeping, like farming and football coaching, is seasonal. A hive depends on the whims of the weather and pollinating plants around it to survive, so bees and keepers have to adjust, every day and every season, to the environment’s whims.
While the worker bees may not be venturing out, a beehive is literally buzzing with activity all month long. Thousands of worker bees have to constantly vibrate to keep the cluster warm enough to function and the brood nest warm enough to raise babies. All this moving takes energy, so each day in January, a hive will consume nearly a pound of its stored honey.
The beekeeper’s one big job is to make sure the hive has food. Hives may or may not be able to make it through the winter on their own, and the keeper has to be careful not to remove too much of their honey stores. The beekeeper has to know when it’s absolutely necessary to step in, because peeking inside the hive allows heat to escape, making it harder to protect the queen and brood.
“January is kind of hands-off.” says Marina Marchese, author of Honeybee: Lessons from an Accidental Beekeeper. “We really don’t open the hive.” Other keepers advise treating winter as a beekeeper’s annual time off: a welcome chance to recuperate after sweating through the summer in their suit.
But there’s always work to be done. Enterprising beekeepers use this time to take inventory, order materials and plan for the year ahead. Housekeeping, it turns out, is essential to beekeeping. Throughout the month, a beekeeper will most likely:
– Monitor hives for wind damage and check to make sure they’re ventilated.
– On warmer days in late winter, quickly check the hive to make sure the bees have enough honey stored for food.
– Feed the hive by placing pollen patties or another form of food in the hive.
– Order new equipment and bees. Because so many hives don’t survive the winter, almost every beekeeper has to order new packages of bees in the spring.
– Build and repair beekeeping equipment.
– Clear snow from the hive entrance.
– Attend local bee club meetings.
In a way, a beekeeper is preparing for January all year long. The carefully choreographed building up of a hive’s workforce and honey supply––as one grows, the other tends to shrink––requires expert care from the first day of spring. But it’s all worth it for raw and unfiltered honey, bottled just the way the bees made it.