Winter Bees

Mid January in Maryland usually sees cold temperatures and snow.  Mid January in Maryland this year has yet to produce either, but has churned out many days of 50+ degree weather.  As such, honey bees that are usually overwintering deep in their hives in tight clusters to maintain their heat and preserve their young brood, are actually flying about on cleansing flights, in search of water sources and even collecting scarce pollen of all things!  How this winter of roller coaster temperatures, one day with a high of 5o degrees, the next with a high of 28 degrees, impacts our honey bees (and plants) is yet to be seen.

For now, as a steward to their care, I am charged with making sure they have what they need to make it through the winter.  I know winter is far from over and cold days will come and stay for a while.  Even with this warm weather, there’s little to no pollen or nectar available for the bees to bring back to their hives.  They are relying on their honey stores from the summer months to get through the cold months until food is again available in the spring.

With temperatures soaring to 50+ degrees yesterday, it was an easy decision to briefly open up my two hives and offer resources.  I was happy to be greeted by so many bees when I popped the outer cover; I can’t say the same of their attitude towards my intrusion.  Having now suffered bee losses, getting honey bees through the winter is a big deal  that causes a lot of wonder and concern during the cold months when I can’t open up the hives to inspect them.  Losing a colony feels crummy.  It’s bigger than just a failure in skill.  Honey bees have survived thousands of years without me and will for thousands more after me, given reasonable care of the environment they live in.  I’m not foolish enough to think that they need me.  In reality, we need bees.  By now most everyone has heard about the vital role honey bees play in our environment.  A third of our food supply depends on insect pollination and of that, honey bees provide 80% of those services.  It’s a staggering amount of work that they do on behalf of the environment as a whole.  Losing a hive feels like a loss to the environment and is more a matter of disappointment in my lack of wisdom on when and how to properly intervene.  There’s a saying I hear in the beekeeping world that if you’re not sure, do nothing because the bees know what to do and will figure it out.  Starvation in the winter though is something I can do something about and the warm weather afforded me the ability to do so with ease.

The bees were in the top box and that typically means they’ve eaten their way up through their winter stores and need assistance, but in this case, I’m not so sure as it was warm out and they were able to freely move about.  Nonetheless, I decided to provide resources of sugar, sugar candy that is made out of sugar and water, and pollen patty supplements should they require it.

I had purchased two pollen patties in the fall and they were in the freezer.  I cut one into quarters and provided each of my hives with a quarter of a patty along with some bee candy I had already made up and a small piece of newspaper with sugar.  I needed a shim to provide height in between the top of the frames and the inner cover to allow room for these additions.  After these resources were placed on top of the frames of the top most box, I added a shim for the height adjustment and then the inner cover and the outer cover.  Here is the arrangement:

Sugar candy piece on left side in back, piece of pollen patty in middle and the granulated sugar on right side in back.  They were very interested in what was going on here.
Inner cover back in place, outer cover came next away from notch on left to allow ventilation despite cold temperatures.


Now they have provisions should they need them as we expect temperatures to drop again and there is rumor of snow.  Amazingly, a strong hive need not fear such impending weather as they cluster together over the small amount of brood they rear in the winter months and maintain a temperature in the 90 degree range, despite plummeting temperatures outside their hive, despite strong wind gusts, despite any snow accumulating outside, handling whatever Mother Nature brings.  They maintain this temperature year round, using their wings to provide the proper fanning to get to that 90 degree range that protects the brood.  This is just one of the many marvels of the amazing honey bee!

My honey bees are fervently moving forward into this new year, also anticipating spring as we humans are, with the full knowledge, or perhaps wisdom would be a more apt term, that it will come.  See the bees recognized the winter solstice that recently occurred and began preparations for spring, the queen laying eggs in anticipation of again building up her colony, hence the idea of adding pollen patties to supplement them.  The bees are always ahead of the game, preparing well in advance, secure in the promise of life and its cycles, diligently working for the greater good.



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