In the northern parts of the U. S.,
summer, and most of autumn, are once again gone. Though a hard frost
hasn’t coated the windows and weeds yet—except in the far reaches—most
of the flowers are finished and only stalks and seed heads remain. Still,
there’s a few straggling asters left in the wettest parts of the fields,
sought after by desperate bees but ignored by most for they know those
lonely white flowers are barren and gone. Nature has little left for the
bees. However, on rare days when it warms to over 50... when the sun
shines and the wind settles enough... ambitious bees go looking for the
last of the season’s wine. It’s in their genes to seek and find.
This first winter can
be daunting for a beekeeper just beginning. But then, winters are always
daunting... that a box of bugs manages to stay alive, moving, buzzing,
raising young, eating, sleeping... when only inches away it’s cold... too
cold for them to live... is one of those fascinating mysteries beekeepers
revel in. Here’s how it works, and how you can help.
not too late to feed sugar syrup in central and southern parts of
the U.S., and there is a host of inhive feeders available to use.
These replace a frame in the bottom box if there’s room. If the
weight of the colony is low, feed the bees a 2:1 sugar:water
solution until they quit taking it.
First, bees don’t
heat the inside of their hive. The air, well, most of the air inside that
stack of boxes is just about exactly the same temperature as the outside
air... so it’s cold inside in the winter. Rather, when the temperature
begins to drop the bees’ first order of business is to keep the brood
warm... and the brood needs to stay at right about 93 degrees or so...
warm by any standard. To do that the bees begin to gather together and
cover the brood, using their bodies to warm the brood in the beeswax cells
they are covering. But wait... bees are cold blooded... not like you and
me. How’s that work?
Some bees stand
directly on the surface of the comb that contains capped honey and stored
pollen plus they are hovering over and covering all the brood, both sealed
and open. Some bees go head first into cells next to brood on both sides
of the comb and generally fill all the empty space beside, over and under
any brood in the comb so the brood is completely, totally surrounded.
When the brood is covered and safe the remaining bees do the same, head
first in cells, standing on the comb surface, rubbing and touching and
filling in all the empty spaces.
Protein supplements may
also be necessary if there isn’t much pollen stored. The bees won’t
need it now so much as shortly after the beginning of the new year,
when the queen begins laying eggs in earnest again. Without a steady
source of high quality protein egg laying will be restricted and the
population of the colony will be compromised for early nectar and
pollen flows next spring.
What you end up with
is a bunch of bees forming a football shaped cluster basically in the
lower center of the hive, encompassing all of the brood and some of the
honey they previously stored. They protect the brood, and they eat the
honey. But remember, they’re still cold blooded. What they do next is
The individual bees
on the outside of this mass of bees turn to face the center of the
cluster, exposing the tips their abdomens to the outside... where the
business part of the bee is—the sting. Once positioned, these bees, and
many of the bees inside the mass of bees close to the surface, but usually
not those closest to the center, begin to vibrate their wing muscles...
and, just as you and I begin to warm up when we exercise, these vibrating
bees begin to warm up and that heat is transferred to the rest of the bees
in the cluster.
Wide open spaces lend
themselves to too much wind. If your bees have this kind of
landscape surrounding them, seriously consider a windbreak to help
reduce the stress on the hive. Use snow fence, fence posts with
landscape burlap, straw bales, or any temporary fence to keep cold
winds at bay.
Meanwhile, the bees
in the center consume the honey, feed the young brood if any are present,
and tend to the needs of the queen—who may, or may not still be
producing brood. Remember that these bees are crammed in together taking
up less than a quarter of the space they were when it was summer time.
Consider putting 20 people in a typical elevator…and having them run in
place…the effect is the same in the bee hive.
One other factor is
that bees are covered with hairs…lots of hairs. Pushed close together,
these hairs add insulation to each bee, and slow the loss of body heat and
warm air from the mass to the cold world outside the cluster. Meanwhile,
the bees on the outside of the cluster, shivering and vibrating like mad
also reduce the flow of warm air away from the inside of the cluster.
Last resort feeding is
to put sugar on the inner cover surrounding the inner cover opening.
Don’t make this a habit, plan ahead and get the food on the bees
So for a time all is
well with the world. But after a bit of this—depending on the
temperature—the bees on the outside begin to tire, they use up their
food reserves and can no longer continue. Hunger, cold and exhaustion set
in; they must be warmed, fed and rested or they will perish, and with
them, all the bees inside the cluster. When these bees are on the edge,
close to collapsing, they slowly move toward the heat, the warmth, the
food…life. But this heat-holding layer must be maintained or all is lost.
And it is replaced… well, usually it is. Warm, well fed, rested bees
from the inside of the cluster migrate toward the outside of the cluster
to replace those moving in. Recall that not only bees on the very outside
of the cluster were holding heat in, vibrating muscles and keeping
everything warm, but many just below of the surface were also…and it is
these that move to the surface, while the warmest bees begin to move up