If you have thought about keeping bees at high altitude you are on a beautiful, exciting, and at times challenging journey. Honey bees are remarkable little helpers who require looking after like any other domesticated animal. Being a beekeeper requires commitment and care; in exchange you will be blessed with joy, excitement, and an often mystical experience. You are invited to witness a world of wonder, a harmonious rhythm between bees and vegetation, allowing you to feel more connected to and part of this amazingly connected ecosphere.
Keeping bees at 8,600 feet, in a cold climate, you need to be aware of a few things to make your bees happy and keep them alive. You have to make sure that your bees have enough food at all times. This might involve carrying your hives to another area which grows certain crops you would like the bees to take advantage off. During the summer months you want to check on your bees weekly to make sure the hive is disease free, to control swarming, and to make sure your bees are happy and healthy.
“The main role of the bee, of course, is to pollinate. Currently, there are at least 235,000 different flowering plants on earth, and bees are responsible for at least 80 percent of cross-pollinating those plants.” Dr. R. Halter
The European honey bee, Apis mellifera, plays a vital role on our planet; a role way beyond our present understanding. The widely-reported decline of bee populations worldwide is already showing its damaging impact on various ecosystems. Industrial agriculture and its excessive use of toxic, bee-killing crop chemicals have contributed to the massive bee die-off phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder.
Honey bees, as other animals, have adapted to their specific environments over decades and live in most of all life-sustaining environments on the planet; from Asia and South America, to Africa and the US. When choosing your bees you want to make sure that the strain you get will be a good fit for your specific climate and environment. There are different strains of the honey bee and some do better in colder, others in warmer climates. I recommend contacting a local beekeeper association and/or supplier of beekeeping equipment as they often offer swarms during early spring.
The Bee Colony
Honey bees are social insects and live as a community in colonies. Colonies have a clear structure and hierarchy. At the top of the hierarchy is the queen bee, the mother of all the bees. She lays all the eggs, both unfertilized (male) and fertilized (female), and secretes a pheromone that keeps all other females in the colony sterile.
Drones neither have stingers nor the physical ability to collect pollen. Not being able to defend the hive or to contribute to the feeding of the community reduces the drone’s rank in the colony significantly. The drone’s purpose consists of mating with the queen bee; subsequently he dies. Come fall, worker bees prevent drones from entering the hive, starving them to death.
Worker bees gather everything needed for the colony, build the comb in which honey is stored and eggs are laid, collect pollen and nectar, and evaporate the nectar to make honey. Worker bees are the ones defending the colony.
Brood is the immature form, the embryo or egg. The brood chamber is the nursery area. The brood chamber grows with the season.
Protective Clothing and Equipment
If you become a beekeeper you will want to get a bee suit to protect you from potential stings. Further, you need leather gloves, a bee smoker, and a hive tool. I did a fair amount of research on different suppliers and ended up buying all my equipment from BackYardHive.
One of the first things you will ponder before getting bees is what kind of a bee hive to choose. Almost any naturally protected site such as hollow trees or stumps, overhangs, rocks, or wooden boxes can serve as a bee hive and people from all over the world have become resourceful and creative over centuries.
When it comes to commercially build hives the traditional Langstroth (named after the “bee space” by L. L. Langstroth and his subsequent development of the movable-frame hive in 1851) and the top-bar bee hive are the most common hives used by beekeepers in the US. The Langstroth hive is easy to maintain, has a simplified design, lots of space, and removable frames, which makes inspecting and dividing the bees easy. The top-bar bee hive has significantly less disturbance during bee inspection and contributes to the production of high quality honey. Choosing a hive is mostly a question of preference though there has been some evidence that top-bar hives might be more suited for areas with a short honey season. After talking to several beekeepers in my area, I chose to get two top-bar hives with extra insulation panels for the long and cold winter.
You may build your own hives and BackYardHive offer plans for a top-bar hive for free. If you don’t feel comfortable building your own hive from scratch, BackYardHive offers the pre-cut materials with instructions, or the completely assembled hive.
When choosing a location for your hives you want the hive to be in place, protected from the elements, in particular strong winds. You should have your hive on a slight forward slant so that any water can roll off the entrance platform and not into the hive.
Short Honey Season, Long Dormant Season
One of the main challenges when keeping bees at high altitude is the short growing season and therefore starvation of your swarm. This means you are either willing or able to get your hives down to lower elevation during those winter months or you have to feed your bees during the winter.
Most beekeepers bring their hives to a lower elevation before the beginning of winter. This winter will be my first winter keeping my two swarms at 8,600 feet. I am grateful that my top-bar hives come with extra insulation panels. The bees barely have enough time during sping and summer to produce enough honey to make it through the winter. I was told that above 8000 feet, the bees will need roughly 150 lbs of honey to stay healthy and alive during the cold winter. Winter can come early at my place and the beginning of September is considered to be the time during the year at which the bees should be left alone to make propolis and seal up their hives for the winter. That means that you have to make sure that the hives have enough honey for the bees to make it through the winter.
My direct neighbors are mountain lions, coyotes, moose, elk, and… bears. Yes, those beautiful and powerful earth animals clearly own the land I live on. If you live in bear country and want to keep bees on your land you will have to put up an electric fence to keep bears away from your hives. Under dry conditions, the soil is not a good conductor. Without a proper ground, the electric fence is not effective and will not deliver a shock, even if the system is very strong. It is best to install a ring of meshed wire around the hives. This will serve as a conductor. When the bear is standing on the metal mesh flooring while touching the fence he will certainly feel more of a “stay away from my bees” than without.
Getting ready for winter
Winters in Colorado and in other areas of the country are long and cold. You have to protect your bees from cold and starvation. My hives have insulation panels (LINK). In addition I stack straw bawls around the hives to protect the colony from freezing temperatures. To be able to fly honey bees need an internal body temperature of 95 °F. This same temperature is also maintained within the cluster and in the brood nest. Below 45-50 °F bees become immobile.
During the winter months the hive should not be completely air tight, allowing for air circulation and excess moisture to escape. High, gusty winds with up to 80mph are common in the Rocky Mountains, especially during winter. You have to make sure your hives are protected from those harsh conditions. Putting the hives under a roof overhand or any other protective shield helps the hive to stay relatively snow free and dry. I have thought about building a little hive cave, a natural kind of a stable build from rock and covered by grass. I already have the plans in my head, it’s just a question of time.
One of the key factors you have to be aware of and provide is adequate nutrition. During winter the colony lives on the honey collected during the summer. Healthy hives should have at least 150lbs of honey before closing up for winter. You may decide to not harvest the honey produced during summer, though most people harvest at least a portion and need to provide a supplemental food source for their bees. There are several recipes you can find online; I will provide two recipes I am aware off.
Honey is loaded with nutrition and no real substitute exists to ensure the health of the bees during long winters.
There are many food supplements available such as high fructose corn syrup or just plain sugar water, but none of them match the real thing, honey. It is important to allow bees to eat all the honey they require. Sometimes, at high altitudes, the bees will need their entire year’s honey crop.
Since this will be my first winter of keeping honey bees at 8,600 feet, I will keep the honey combs intact to give my swarms the best possible chance to survive. I will re-evaluate my decision during the years to come. For those of you who are looking to feed your bees supplemental food I have listed a couple of recipes. It is important to know that once you start supplying supplemental food such as sugar solutions or pollen patties (feeding pollen other than their own to your bees is a controversial topic since the pollen can introduce disease to your hive) you must continue until natural pollen is available or the hive will decline and/or collapse.
Sugar Solutions for Feeding Bees
Spring feeding: 1 part organic cane sugar to 1 part water
Fall feeding: 2 parts organic cane sugar to 1 part water
Recipe by Dr. Roger Hoopingarner
15 lbs. sugar
3 lbs. white corn syrup
4 cups water
½ tsp. cream of tartar
This post is intended to be an introductory overview about keeping bees at high altitude. During this year I will write about more specific topics such as colony care and hive inspection, how to keep your swarm healthy, honey harvesting, and much more.
I always welcome feedback and/or question, so please leave me a comment below.
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