The Carniolan honeybee, a species hosted by Ridgway’s new community apiary. (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

Don’t be a fair weather friend, so the expression goes. When it comes to raising honeybees, that’s especially true.

When winter arrives, the beguiling, hard-working insects don’t shut down and hibernate. Instead, their job shifts from foraging for pollen and nectar in the outdoors to keeping the queen warm inside the hive. They do this by clustering around her and shimmying their wings; their collective movement keeps the queen’s body heat at 93 degrees Fahrenheit. Such temperature-maintenance is crucial.

“Otherwise, it will compromise what the queen is available to provide for the hive next spring,” said Fred Boyle, hive master of the new Ridgway Community Apiary, which was installed earlier this summer near the Ridgway Community Garden.

Boyle has ‘hosted’ honeybees — a word he prefers because, as he pointed out, ‘kept’ creatures don’t generally flourish — for nearly six decades. You might imagine he knows everything there is to know about keeping hives thriving during winter, considering that “99.9 percent of my work with honeybees has been hands-on.”

You would be wrong.

“The results of winter hive survival, last year in particular in Ridgway” — before the community apiary even existed — “have been so surprising and differential,” Boyle pointed out.

Co-founding apiary member Vicki Hawse, for example, wrapped the equivalent of small down jackets over the hives she keeps in her backyard, to help the tiny residents inside stay warm. “Vicki just plunged straight on in, and her hives put up huge winter stores” of honey, Boyle said.

On the other hand, Boyle is a fairly seasoned winter beekeeper himself. And as his partner, Judy Hazen, noted, “Vicki had wonderful success with her bees, but we didn’t, and we live just a quarter of a mile away from her. So, what’s the difference?”

Was it the down sweaters?

“Maybe,” Boyle allowed. “It’s all conjecture. There are all these other things, such as the effects of pesticides and herbicides” which can be deleterious to the health of a pollinator. “There are too many variables to pin down. Honeybees have a huge radius for foraging. They’re going to run into all sorts of things.”

“The people I know who host honeybees intervene in winter in an assortment of ways,” he added. “Some, you look at what they’ve done, and you say, ‘That ought to be helpful,’ and boom! That colony dies. Other hosts think, ‘I should have done more,’ and their bees come busting out in the spring. There’s almost no accounting for what has worked and what hasn’t. One of the ironies is, honeybees aren’t native here. They were introduced from Europe. If you keep them too warm in winter, they’ll be too active, and eat up all their supplies of honey, and starve to death. If you let them get cold, you run the risk of some of them freezing. One of the most intriguing aspects of bee hosting is that there’s tons of discussion, and almost no data to draw from. Up until recently, this has not gotten much funding for scientific research.”

That’s where next weekend comes in: On Saturday, community apiary members will host a roundtable at the new pavilion on the Ridgway Soccer Fields from 10 a.m.-noon, titled “Winterizing Your Bees: How to Be a Good Host to Honeybees When the Weather Changes.” 

Call it a collective summoning of the hive-mind: The hope is to draw seasoned bee-hosts from around this region who can share their “best tips and tricks” for keeping honeybees alive in a San Juans winter. The event is free, but Ridgway Community Apiary members ask you to preregister via the RCA’s Instagram account, its Facebook group, or by writing, so they’ll have an idea of how many attendees to expect (phone 970-626-5513 with any questions).

In its first few months of existence, the apiary has attracted 15 members. On the group’s wish list, for those who may be interested in contributing (thriving hives, after all, contribute not only to a healthier planet, but the local ecosystem): a 6’ x 8’ shed for the storage of a tractor and other apiary items (or a sponsor for $450); horse wire (or a sponsor for $150); an outdoor bulletin board, or $200; and 6-foot stays for the fence, (or $100).

Sponsors receive an apiary logo tee shirt that reads, ‘Make America Pollinated Again.’

“We have the capacity for 24 colonies,” based on the property’s acreage, Boyle said. “We try to space them very differently than what you’d find at a commercial bee yard; it keeps the bees more mellow.” As for next weekend, “I don’t know if we can expect to reach any conclusions” about what works best for bees during winter. “I’ve decided that this event will be successful if everybody goes home having settled on some description of winterizing that rings their chimes, and they try it. That’s the advantage of an apiary: you have shoulders to cry on and experience to rely on, and judgments to accept or reject. Over the last 50 or 60 years, I’ve not remotely done the same thing with my hives,” he added. “I am the mad experimenter. All I have is my instinct. There is not much empirical evidence” about what works best for bee hosts in winter, and their small, charming charges.