Amateur beekeepers' winter chores: worry and make lip balm

Amateur apiarists make lip balm and fret

awilson1@herald-leader.comDecember 18, 2010 

  • Here's the buzz
    • This is the third in an occasional series of stories that follow the beekeeping adventures of staff writer Amy Wilson and free-lance photographer Angela Baldridge.
    • The women — who both love to commune with nature, although Amy prefers to drive there — think the idea of keeping bees fits their notions of themselves as brave, neighborly and planet-friendly.

Treat the 25,000 pets for mites with powdered sugar? Check.

Kill their lingering fungi with medicine-laced sugar water? Check.

Freeze the bejezus out of their now-abandoned homestead so we can reuse it next year? Check.

For about a week, our bees are the most ideal, no-trouble overwintering pets on the planet. That is, until one of us has the great idea to ask the guy at the bee-supply store —where we're busy gloating about our summer honey haul — a question.

Dadant and Sons Inc.'s Frankfort branch manager, Clay Guthrie, says he's impressed with our 60-pound harvest. He rightfully checks that we have left them plenty of honey to eat during the winter. Indeed we have.

Then he lets down the hammer. "You know," he says, "some bees die when they're just an inch or two away from plenty of honey. Nobody knows why. They just starve to death for no reason."

What?

Our bees can starve when we've already treated them with the alternative and homeopathically correct varroa mite eradicator? Our bees can go belly-up after we've lugged hay down from the hayloft and across the field and piled it high around (but not up against them) so they have a windbreak fort for the winter? Our bees can die just when we were absolutely certain the only thing left to do this winter was to make lip balm for our friends and slather honey on biscuits?

Now you tell us we have to stare out the kitchen window all winter and wonder whether it's a charnel house out there?

We realize that we are much too in love with our bees. Again.

But what about our bees' highly vaunted endothermic heat-production capability that we were told about back in bee school last winter?

That's when the glorious multitude makes a big concentric circle around the queen and the queen stays a toasty — get this — 96 degrees all winter because everybody is flapping their wings to drum up the community body heat. This is the kind of stuff that made us fall in love in the first place.

See, it seems that the bees nearest Her Royalness, when their instincts say so, rotate to the outside of the circle, and everybody takes their turn getting nearer to the queen's, er, radiance. The cluster, as it is called, contracts and expands as the temperature drops and rises.

But now, we're told, the cluster has to keep contact with the food somehow, and if they lose it, the cluster can die.

So how are we supposed to help them not die? Lots of beekeepers have opinions on this, and few of them agree.

Suffice it to say they agree on two things:

■ We are not supposed to open the hive until it's 55 degrees or warmer outside if we don't want to accidentally freeze the girls to death.

■ We should throw a pollen pad at them about Dec. 22, praying that a warm wind decides to blow about then.

Here's the bottom line: Fretting is the beekeeper's real winter job. And apparently, here's the one thing beekeepers agree on: You can do it or not, and it makes no difference.

Either way, you can use the balance of your time to make soap, mead or lip balm. We chose lip balm because we thought little tubes and little tubs that fit in your purse were more our speed.

Plus, we had thought ahead and gathered a little bag of beeswax when we gathered our honey. (See how the word "little" figures in here. Once you've drowned 3,000 bees in 20 pounds of honey, a "little" project seems downright gleeful.)

So the wax, some sunflower oil, some essential oils and one Martha Stewart-Googled recipe yielded more tubes and tubes of holiday joy than we ever imagined.

Let me say that the pineapple-tangerine-honey shea butter balm is to die for.

Please tell every bee you know that that's just a figure of speech.

Reach Amy Wilson at (859) 231-3305 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3305.

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