The very notion of “preparing bees for a blizzard” is really a bit arrogant on my part in all honesty. Honey bees have survived over 2,000 years on this earth and know far better than I how manage themselves. In fact, they prepared for this blizzard and any weather this winter offers in the fall by making sure they had ample food storage going into the winter, packing away as much pollen for their young as they could locate and sealing every crack of their hive with propolis, a very sticky material collected mostly from trees that acts like a glue. So my efforts were really quite meager in comparison. However, that’s the role of a beekeeper in my view, not to do for them but to assist where needed.
In nature a flimsy hive would not withstand heavy gusts of wind and extreme periods of cold and snow, but one tucked into an old tree would likely fair well. When bees swarm their scout bees look for their new residence but it’s a time sensitive operation so sometimes people encounter bee homes in less than ideal settings and without human intervention they wouldn’t survive. Mostly though, they find excellent homes in nature and we rarely see natural honey bee hives on our walks. A fellow beekeeper I know has an old tree on his property that has been home to a feral hive for many years.
Upon waking Saturday morning, I couldn’t believe my eyes: more than a foot of snow just as predicted with more falling rapidly. In fact, the meteorologists hit the nail on the head this time and we set a record at BWI Airport at just under 30 inches of snow. West of the city, we had more and with the high winds, drifts reached even higher making for quite a laborious clean out.
After making sure the dog had ample space to navigate in the snow, clearing and restocking bird feeders, cleaning walks, driveways, and downspouts and helping elderly neighbors, I did clean off the front of the hives so the bees could have access to the outside when temperatures rise slightly. It was a two day process as our efforts on Saturday were hampered by the high winds that came roaring in at over 35 mph, blowing snow everywhere and covering the work we did earlier in the day. It was a historic storm indeed.
So what’s going on inside of the hives? Bees remain clustered to maintain heat, keeping themselves alive and their small brood. As such, finding food will be challenging for them as the days go on at these cold temperatures. The cluster is likely located over frames of food stores, i.e., honey and the pollen used to feed to their young, but once they eat through the honey, there’s a concern that they need to be able to move to more stores. Moving is not a simple process as they need to maintain the temperature around the core of the cluster around 90 degrees and it’s a monumental task to fan enough heat into that cluster when the outside temperatures are so cold. As such bee volume is so important going into the winter months. More bees make for less work and they can cover a larger area, thereby passing food stores between them.
The past few days, the temperatures have been below freezing. Any break will be helpful for us with snow melt and for the bees so they have a chance to regroup closer to food sources, but until then, they do their best to maintain heat in the cluster. I didn’t hear the humming of the bees when I cleared them off, which always worries me, but I frequently don’t hear them, that’s why I was so happy the other day when we could hear them so well. There was a good amount of noise yesterday from cleaning, nearby birds feasting on my winter offerings, winds, and just random noises of the day.
The storm began Friday night and the full brunt of it happened on Saturday. Sunday was a day of digging out and waiting for signs of life from the bees. By Monday afternoon, the thermometer hit 32 degrees with little wind and bright sunny skies. Since the kids were playing in the snow and I’m so curious, I ventured down to the hives. I was thrilled to see one of my girls outside, walking along the landing and then fly off, likely on a cleansing flight. I placed my ear next to that yellow box that was humming so loudly the other day and much to my delight, I heard my girls buzzing along. I placed my ear against the other hive and heard the same. They both survived this blizzard. They aren’t out of the woods. Winter can be long but for now, I’ll rejoice in this small victory of the bees!