Winter teaches harsh lesson about beekeeping

I lost my beehive this winter. As a novice beekeeper with only one season under my belt, the tragedy was painful. I was saddened by my lack of knowledge to better protect them while realizing how fragile this specialized insect really is. Losing the honeybee colony was a travesty not only for me, but for all the plant life these busy bees pollinated last summer.

Learning from trial and error always deepens humbleness, yet hopefully a valuable lesson is learned through the experience. I learned, once again, that if you take on a responsibility, then you must tend that obligation to the best of your ability. The reality, though, is I could have done more to save that honeybee colony. 

My young hive was a strong one from the start. Last fall, my mentor and very knowledgeable beekeeper, Ray Gilbert, estimated the colony contained more than 60,000 honeybees. He came out one morning to help me check on the hive and to determine whether they had a sufficient food supply to get them through the winter. Considering they were still bringing in sacks of pollen well into the middle of November, I was certain their honey reserve was plentiful.

It only took one exceptionally cold day, in this otherwise moderate winter season, to annihilate the community. Remember the unusual ice storm we had back in mid-January? Prior to that fluke storm, a few bees had been venturing out of the box on warm days scouting the barren terrain. A gentle knock on the side of their enclave resulted in an instant buzz that assured me the little worker bees were doing their job of keeping the queen warm and fed. At the time, the hum was centered near the middle of the box.

We had a few cold weeks after the ice storm and there was no activity from the hive. I just assumed they were staying inside to keep warm. When warmer days arrived and there was still no movement coming from the silent structure, I knew something was wrong. After a few days, I already had a pretty good idea of what I was to find when I opened the box.   

It was devastating. There were hundreds of dead bees littered throughout the frames. As I reached the middle of the top box, I discovered the core — the large huddle of bees that spend their lives vibrating to keep the queen alive. Sickened by the massacre, I went inside to call Ray. Once he arrived, it only took him a short time to inspect the hive, quietly determining the cause of the disaster.

Condensation from the freezing rain storm had built up inside the box. He pointed out a blue hue on many of the honey laden frames near the bottom. He explained that mold spores had developed in the tiny honeycomb which ultimately caused the colony’s collapse. While he tried to reassure me, explaining that the storm had done severe damage to many hives in the area, I still felt a rush of guilt for not protecting their surroundings better.

Last fall, I thought of several different designs to construct a roof which would keep moisture out of the hive. The box sits in a corner of my backyard, surrounded on two sides by a solid fence. It would not have been difficult to build a roof over their surroundings but unfortunately I never followed through with any of my ideas. My mind continues to grapple with whether a roof would have made any difference, but in my heart, I know I should have done more.

Ray explained how to clean the frames and then gently asked if I would be willing to try another hive. Without hesitation, I immediately said yes. The future of our food crops relies heavily on honeybee pollination and I feel an urgency to help this dwindling advocate to society. Undoubtedly, the sacrifice of my first hive will better prepare my future endeavors to ensure the bee population survives. It just seems unfair that this essential creation is so delicate, prone to complete colony collapse.

To learn more about honeybees and their complex societies, head out to the ninth annual Palisade International Honeybee Festival on Saturday, April 8. From its inception, the organizers determined the festival would be geared toward educating the public on the importance of honeybees and their role in society. The family-friendly festival includes informational booths, local beekeepers sharing their honey and artisans showcasing the honeybee. The festival website can be found at palisadehoneybeefest.org.

For more information on becoming a beekeeper, visit westerncoloradobeekeepersassociation.org.

Charlé Thibodeau has been a passionate pet caregiver for more than 30 years. If you have a pets question you would like Thibodeau to answer in her column, email .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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