If you are wondering, the bees seem to be doing well. It’s not that they have been neglected–it’s just that work has kept me from writing about the bees–or much of anything for that matter–as you’ve noticed.
As I watch the snow blowing around in our recent unusual cold snap (which it seemed as if it would never end) I’ve been reviewing my notes in the Hive Tracks software that I use for record-keeping the successes and failures, and ideas for next year. I keep thinking of what’s going on in the hives at this time of the year and I \need to do my monthly readings from the hive scales to upload for the Bee Care hive studies. I have “candy boards” on both hives to supplement the honey stores from the summer if the bees need more food.
It was a relief to see bees flying from both hives yesterday and even a few toting some pollen–not much though. Since the temperature was in the upper 60s I did have a quick peek into the upper super of honey and there were lots of bees. As we get ready for the next wave of cold weather to move through I’m glad to have supplemental food available and the quilt boxes on to help control moisture in the hive.
A question often asked (especially in wintertime and especially when we have weather extremes (at least for here) like this is about what is happening with the bees: do you start again next spring, do the bees hibernate or die?
One of the specializations of honeybees is that they are driven to store honey–that’s not true of many native bees, and it is something that has lead to “beekeeping. Some keep bees for honey production, some for pollination, and some of likely just because they are such fascinating creatures but no matter why this involves doing things to keep the bees healthy and well fed.
As beekeepers, we hope that we will be able to see the colonies successfully over the winter so that we won’t have to start again in the spring. That’s the hope of the beekeeper: we hope that there has been honey and pollen stored by the bees to use in the cold weather and if not, then we will supplement what the colony has been able to store as needed, mostly with granulated sugar (sucrose). Thus, keeping records of the weight of the hive and judging how much honey remains for consumption when there is no nectar brought into the hive is necessary.
The “work” for the bees in the winter time is taking care of the queen and a small amount of brood (developing bees)–in cold weather, that means keeping the hive warm. To accomplish this the worker bees (remember, all girls) “cluster” or “huddle” over the comb surrounding the queen. The honey in the comb is eaten to provide energy to “shiver” the wing muscles (without moving the membranous wings) to generate heat to keep the hive warm (around 93 to 95°F).
The queen stays in the center of this winter cluster–being fed and kept warm. The workers that surround her move from the outer edges of the cluster inward, and back again so that everyone stays warm enough to survive. (Think about the male Emporer penguins in “March of the Penguins.”) The more active inner bees move outward and push colder bees that cannot move well inwards to warm up and eat.
As winter approaches, the bees do a number of things to get ready for winter, in addition to storing honey: metabolism changes and the winter bees (that live longer than summer working bees) store food reserves to become “fat winter” bees. Vitellogenin is stored in fat bodies in the abdomen of winter bees—and is triggered by the decline in available “brood food”–as winter comes on. This provides the protein necessary to start spring brood rearing as the days get longer. Our winter bee care means that we must see that there is enough food (honey) since the bees are active all winter within the hive.
We also try to make it easier for the bees to keep hive temperatures up by making sure ventilation is adequate, that moisture from the respiratory activity of the bees does not collect and drip back down on the cluster. (Think about having cold water splashed on you when you’re trying to keep warm.) One of the things I use to stop excess moisture dripping onto the bees is a “quilt box”–a layer of cedar shaving that will catch the moisture that drips from the hive top. When it’s very humid, I have to check and sometimes replace shavings if they are really wet.
Because the bees do such a good job of keeping the hive warm, it also becomes a very cozy place for other critters (e.g. mice) to spend the winter. As beekeepers we take physical measures to make that impossible–make the entrances to the hives small– to keep pests out.
With those preparations done, we beekeepers overwinter ourselves by thinking about plans for the spring, fretting about the bees and trying to stay warm when the weather is extreme, enjoying some of the honey from our hives, and (like gardeners) anticipating the first bloom that will start our colonies growing again.