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Beekeeper Chris Kelly of Mattituck. (Courtesy photo)
Beekeeper Chris Kelly of Mattituck. (Courtesy photo)

Honeybee colonies that have survived the frostbitten heart of winter are buzzing in preparation for the most challenging part of the season: making it through March and April. 

For the past few years, the stresses of winter have proven too much for many local colonies, and some beekeepers have experienced high rates of colony collapse.

Chris Kelly, a master beekeeper with over 42 years’ experience who instructs novice beekeepers at the Plantage in Mattituck, said he lost close to 90 percent of his colonies last year — and he’s determined to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Mr. Kelly and several of his students are taking citizen science to the next level by experimenting with different ways of winterizing beehives, he said, even employing techniques that “science says are all wrong.”

When temperatures dip below 40 degrees, honeybees form a cluster within the hive and flap their wings to create warmth, protecting themselves and their queen — who positions herself at the cluster’s center — from the bitter cold.

Honeybees move that cluster around the hive to access various locations where the honey that fuels their ongoing days of wing action is stored. But like most creatures, they need to relieve themselves periodically.

Breaks in the cold temperatures allow the bees to leave the hive for “cleansing flights” to rid themselves of waste, after which they  relocate within the hive.

Timing and temperature are everything, since a distance of two inches inside a hive and a prolonged bout of cold temperatures could mean the difference between survival and expiration.

“Bees can wait up to about six to eight weeks before things start to break down in the hive,” Mr. Kelly said.

(Chris Kelly courtesy photo)
(Chris Kelly courtesy photo)

Some of the experimental winterization techniques focus on temperature variations and Mr. Kelly has placed hives in very different thermal situations this season.

Four hives reside in a greenhouse at the Plantage in Mattituck that is heated to between 50 and 60 degrees throughout the winter. This greenhouse, which Mr. Kelly has dubbed “Miami,” keeps the bees from going dormant and eliminates the need for the protective cluster.

One recent afternoon, bees in “Miami” were traveling to and from their hives, visiting soon-to-bloom plants Mr. Kelly is growing inside that greenhouse.

Mr. Kelly noted that active bees have an average lifespan of six weeks, while those that lie dormant tend to live up to four months. Reproduction doesn’t commonly begin until early spring, he added.

Although some bees have died, on the whole Mr. Kelly’s “Miami” hives have thrived.

“So far, so good,” he said.

In another greenhouse nearby, about a dozen other hives are lined up and protected from the elements but exposed to a temperature of about 40 degrees, which drops and rises with the movement of the sun. This lower temperature keeps the bees dormant and provides ample opportunity for cleansing flights.

His remaining hives have been left on site at local farms and vineyards, braving whatever Mother Nature chooses to serve up.

Mr. Kelly’s students’ techniques change up the usual as well.

(Chris Kelly courtesy photo)
(Chris Kelly courtesy photo)

Carrie Davis, a bee student from Patchogue, has wrapped three sides of her hive at the Plantage with home heating insulation, tricking the bees into thinking it’s warmer outside than it actually is.

“Who wants to wait six weeks to use the bathroom?” Ms. Davis joked, explaining that she wanted her bees to be able to leave the hive as needed.

Bette Lou Fletcher of Sag Harbor and Amanda Devitto of Mastic Beach have experimented with different supplemental feeding techniques. Since the bees’ stored honey is sometimes not enough to last them through the winter, they’ve added boards of sugar, or “candy boards,” and sugar syrups to ensure the bees have enough food.

Ms. Fletcher has supplemented three of her hives and left two others to mostly fend for themselves.

Ms. Devitto has been feeding her bees regularly, sometimes daily.

Mr. Kelly said they each stand to learn a thing or two from the different techniques they are trying out  — adding that getting one’s bees through the winter is “part art and part science.”

“You can quantify how much your bees will eat based on temperature, but the nuance of each location also plays a role,” he said.

Teacher and students will open their hives in April, when the results of their experiments will become evident.

Mr. Kelly will host a free class for advanced beekeepers Thursday, March 6,  from 6 to 7:30 p.m. at Talmage Farm Agway in Riverhead, designed to teach keepers how to open hives for spring. Participants should have at least one year’s beekeeping experience. For information and registration, call 631-727-3100.

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