Thursday, January 31, 2013

What Do Bees Do All Winter?

-Posted by Isaac

What do they do when it's cold outside?
Occasionally we get asked this question at the  winter markets.
Do they migrate?
Do they hibernate?

 Last winter, Jim Tew from the OSU bee lab jokingly told a reporter that wintertime bees mostly  "hang out, drink beer and watch TV..."
This left some Columbus Dispatch readers scratching their heads, and poor Mr. Tew was pressed into explaining what he meant by that for several weeks following.
What he was essentially saying is that bees don't do all that much. No hibernating, no migrating, no foraging. In cold wet Ohio, they mostly just try to stay alive.
Every so often we get a day with the temps rising above 50 degrees, and the bees are able to get out and take "cleansing flights." Our 65 degree January day this week was just the ticket.
("Don't go believin that Climate Change crap!")
("Them scientists don't know nuffin!")
Cleansing flights

With the advent of this tropical January craziness, Mason and I got out to check a few hives.

Mason dons the new bee suit
 Here's what bees really do in the winter-- they cluster. They form a tight ball with the queen in the middle and vibrate their wing muscles in order to produce heat. In this cluster, there is a slow rotation of outside bees working their way in, and vice versa. Producing the heat requires fuel, and this is why bees need a hefty store of honey going into winter. As the winter toils on, the bees slowly eat their way upward through the frames of honey.
Loose winter cluster
Here you can see a cluster that has worked its way up to the top. They are eating their stored honey and are almost through with the protein/ honey patty I gave them in the Fall.

If the hive is light weight, and maybe 20% of ours are, we give them a five pound fondant patty to play around with.

A light hive means the bees have eaten their way through most what little winter stores they had. We make many July and August splits (small hives, new queen), so we sometimes run into this food problem. Especially if the bees, for whatever reason, didn't collect much goldenrod and aster nectar.
If you're wondering, the little ball in there helps with the condensation rolling down the sides of the bag instead of falling  directly on the bees.

As I said earlier, the winter is mostly a fight for survival, and as always there are a few casualties.
This is a small hive that died, not from lack of food, but simply because the cluster size was too small to produce enough heat. Without heat the bees are immobile, and they can't move enough to travel the few inches to their stores. I pulled a frame up to show a cross section of the dead cluster. This cluster was only three frames in width. Way too small.
"The Fallen"
February and March are the critical winter months for feeding and checking bees. The queen has been laying, and the brood nest size is increasing. The bees instinctually keep the brood warm above all else... even eating. If we get a two week cold snap it could spell disaster if the bees are not close to a food source. I'm talking inches.
Therefore, in a couple weeks, things get busy. We go around making sure our girls are fat and happy.

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