Choosing to ignore the fine example set by last winter, this one has launched itself upon us like a starving dog on a warm slab of ribs. As I write this, we’re looking at single-digit temps and a possible snowstorm on the three-day horizon. The rearview mirror holds a full week during which the barometer never broke 30 degrees, and the situation is getting desperate.
Inside the hives, however, I expect the girls are handling this weather with aplomb. That is because, unlike me, they do not spend the fall months in denial. They prepare.
Quite a few people have asked what the bees do in the winter. A surprising number assume they fly south for the duration like a band of tiny songbirds. Much as I love the idea of clouds of honeybees buzzing their way toward the Mason-Dixon line, the truth is that, like most of us, they hunker down and deal.
Honeybees are masters of maximizing their resources. Once the temperature falls below 50 degrees, they don’t go out foraging. (Although I swear on my mother’s soul that I saw one shoot out of the hive last week during a balmy afternoon that hit maybe 23 degrees. I didn’t see her return, and will assume this was a suicide mission, precipitated perhaps by some drama in the hive sisterhood. Alas, we will never know.)
So, unable to leave the hive while the temperature remains low, honeybees are careful to go into winter prepared. They spend the fall stockpiling honey and pollen. They patch up tiny cracks and crevices with propolis, a glue-like substance they make from tree sap, and which rivals the tenacity of any glue on the market.
They also jettison the deadwood, including all the boys in the colony, the drones. As soon as mating season is over in the fall, the drones are unceremoniously shoved out the door, left to starve or freeze, their choice.
The girls who hatch in late fall are a kind of super worker bee. Unlike their earlier-season sisters who literally wear themselves out in a few short weeks, they are homebodies who store up more fat and focus solely on managing the hive’s stored food. They may never leave the hive at all. Fall-hatched workers can live through to the spring, far longer than the six weeks allotted to worker bees during the warm months.
Those winter workers have one job—to keep the queen alive and healthy through the winter so she’ll be ready to start laying eggs again once the spring finally arrives. They are the bridge from one generation of bees to the next. With luck, they’ve got enough food stored to keep everyone fed. Our three hives were a little light going into winter, so we fed them sugar water for a few weeks in the fall to help them top up their stores, and supplemented that with a winter patty last time it was warm enough to open the hive. Commercially available winter patties are gooey slabs of sugar, lemongrass and spearmint oil, a smidge of pollen substitute for protein, and enough moisture to keep them pliable. You plop one down on top of the frames, under the hive cover, and they can pick at it like a tray of hors d’oeuvres as needed.
We also put insulated covers on our hives and wrap them in foam insulation to help the girls keep the warmth in, but the rest is up to them.
Throughout the winter, the bees will stay in a ball formation, keeping the queen in the center, where it’s the warmest, around 93 degrees Fahrenheit. The girls will continually rotate from the outside to the inside of the cluster so nobody gets too cold, and they’ll move from one part of the hive to another as food stores get used up so there’s always food nearby.
Later in the winter, the queen will begin laying eggs for early spring hatching, and that’s when things can get really dicey. The bees will cluster over the brood to make sure it doesn’t freeze, but many hives starve to death because the available honey isn’t in close proximity to the brood area, and the girls will choose starvation over leaving the brood to freeze.
Honeybees are also obsessive about keeping a clean house, and will hold off for weeks—sometimes months—on using the potty, until they get a warm enough day for a short cleansing flight. Warmish days also give the girls a chance to push any bees that have died out the door, so it’s not unusual to see a small pile of tiny dead bodies outside the hive door. Alarming though it can be, it’s actually a sign that the hive is functioning as it should.
I’m trying to be optimistic that our hives will come through the winter okay, although our neighbor Charlie, who got me into this mess in the first place, is certain they’re all dead already. He is not helping my anxiety.
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One fine body…