Photos and writing provided by Lisa Barker, Food and Farm Coordinator
With the winter almost officially upon us, I’m sure at least some of you are wondering: What exactly happens to the bees in the winter? The answer varies somewhat depending on the region and the climate, but: because bees are resilient and adaptable, they’ve evolved to survive long winters without access to flowers and warm temperatures.
While in the spring and summer worker bees have a lifespan of just 4-6 weeks, the last bees born during the year—the “winter bees”- will live for 4-6 months. These bees will hunker down inside the hive in a cluster with the queen at the center, doing minimal activity and surviving off of the honey that the colony has been storing up all year. The bees cannot fly when the temperature is lower than 50 degrees, so for much of the winter, they just stay inside. On 50+ degree days, they will take “cleansing flights”—bees will not use the bathroom inside the hive all winter! (There’s a set of circumstances to imagine!)
As the temperature drops, the queen completely stops laying eggs until after the winter solstice. Then, as the days slowly start to get longer, activity begins to gradually pick back up again.
Because the bees are limited in their resources in the winter, the population of the colony goes down along with the temperature. The male bees, or drones, do not survive the winter- they are kicked out of the hive by the female worker bees. Only once it has warmed up significantly in the spring and the stores of food have been replenished will the queen bee begin laying male eggs.
In this part of the world, a colony needs at least 60 pounds of honey to survive the winter. So, a few weeks ago, we combined two sets of two hives, each of which did not have enough honey stores on their own.
When combining hives, the stronger of the two goes on the bottom, and a layer of newspaper goes in between. The bees will eventually chew through the paper but having it there initially allows them to gradually get used to their new housemates.
It’s not a completely peaceful transition, though: If there was a queen bee in each of the two colonies that got combined, they will literally fight it out and by the time the colonies are combined, there will only be one.
Most of what you can see on this frame is capped honey, but there are some empty cells around the edges. What we really want to see are frames that are completely filled with honey from top to bottom. When the bees have finished processing the honey, they seal it into the cell with a wax capping. They make the wax themselves with special a gland on their abdomen!
Our next step in preparing our bees for winter was to make something called a quilt box for each hive. Sounds cozy, right? This is one of the best methods of keeping the hive moisture-free during the winter. While the bees will, remarkably, keep the temperature around 95 degrees all winter long by clustering together and pulsating their muscles, moisture buildup inside the hive is one of the biggest threats to their survival. A two-part system of inserting material at the top of the hive to absorb the moisture as well as proper ventilation to let it escape is essential, especially in areas with long cold winters like ours.
A quilt box has a piece of cotton cloth as a “floor” underneath a thick layer of pine shavings. We also added a layer of wire mesh beneath the cotton cloth to keep it from sagging over time. Moisture vapor, rising up from the cluster of bees as they eat and breathe, passes through the fabric and into the shavings. Ventilation is also key: above the shavings are holes in a shim that will allow the moisture to continue to travel up, through, and out of the hive when outside conditions are right. In the meantime, the shavings will absorb the water and hold it away from the bees.
With the quilt boxes in place and some supplemental food provided in each hive—in the form of solid sugar mixed with a pollen substitute—our bees are ready to cozy up and wait out the winter. The beekeeping class, which has been working with them since the beginning of the year, said “good night” to the bees last week during our final day of working with them for the season. In the spring a new class will be checking to see how they fared over the cold months. It’s always a little nerve-wracking for me—I miss seeing our small fuzzy friends all winter! In the meantime, I like to imagine them daydreaming about brightly colored flowers abundant in nectar as they wait for the temperature to rise and the days to get longer.