The winter solstice signals more than the first official day of winter. In the natural world, animals use the changes in available daylight to signal their actions. Eventually, longer daylight hours will signal song birds to sing more to attract mates and begin laying eggs and dormant plants to emerge and begin anew. Remarkably, the winter solstice signals honey bees to begin spring prepartions now.
As we feel the chill of winter here in the Mid Atlantic with overnight temperatures in the teens and daytime temperatures barely climbing out of the thirties, inside my honey bee hives, the girls are clustered together to maintain warmth which they do astonishingly well, fanning their wings rapidly and graciously rotating in and out of the cneter of the cluster so they all get to be really warm for a while. With the longer daylight hours that slowly arrive with the winter solstice, the queen is signaled to begin laying eggs again. Bee season begins now.
The inside of a hive is dark so how they know that the winter solstice has arrived and that daylight hours are slowly being extended, is a bit of a mystery, much like honey bees in general. Yet, they know and the worker bees begin to slowly raise the temperature inside the hive to accommodate more brood. As such, the demands on the hive increase as it takes more energy to do this and more food is needed to rear additional young, yet the bees cannot fly in the cold and even if they get a few warm days in winter where temperatures exceed 50 degrees, there’s little to nothing on which to forage. So it is during these coming months that many colonies fail and it’s not because of the cold temperatures, but rather sadly, because they frequently starve.
If you’ve kept up with my blog, you know that my hives are a concern to me this winter. In fairness, I suppose I’d say that any winter. My giant hive that did so well for me the past few years with the gentle bees and the amazing queen that laid row upon row of eggs from one frame to the next and gifted me (and my friends and family) with delicious honey, was battling mites for some time. I fear the mites won.
I knew they had a problem and I treated the hive after harvest, but I did not treat the prior year and this may have led to a problem bigger than the one treatment could manage. Mites are a known plague to honey bees with treatment options as diverse as the opinions of beekeepers as to whether or not to treat. I try to be as organic as possible, not just in my garden but with my bees and now my chickens as well, but there are times that we do need to turn to chemical interventions for help. I just may have waited too long. As well, the nature of beekeeping may have evolved to such a point that not treating may just be a losing proposition in the long run, something I’ve given more and more consideration to recently.
When I prepared my hives for winter (cue laughter here from beekeepers as we know that we don’t really prepare them, just support their intelligent efforts), I noted the dramatic reduction in bees from my big hive, beyond typical fall die off, and I started to think about the potential of a winter mite treatment, a new and more frequently used option for beekeepers. After contemplating this, I decided to let nature decide on their outcome.
This is a hard choice to make, not just because I am so fond of this colony and their pleasant disposition and generosity in honey production, but because these insects are life. They are life, sustaining life, given how intricately involved in our ecosystems they are but if they can’t handle the mite load, then perhaps their genetics are not well suited for future populations.
This decision makes me sad and I don’t even know if they are alive at the current writing but I do know that the genes of this good queen are circulating in the community and the smaller hive that struggled so much in the summer, was infused with brood from this queen and seemed strong going into winter. So that much good continues and I hope my (former) big hive pulls through. As soon as temperatures increase, I will crack the propolis seal and peak in, adding food if necessary, keeping fingers crossed for the best, but knowing in the end, nature knows best just as nature provides these shifts in daylight and provides cues for animals.
For now, the bees are hunkered down in their hives, much as we are hunkered down in our own hives, but there’s much life-sustaining activity within. In the wild, native bees are preparing for new life too whether via eggs laid into mud filled enclosures or queens overwintering in the ground, ready to emerge in the spring. There are approximately 4,000 named native bee species in the United States and 20,00o currently known worldwide. Native bees, also known as solitary bees, overwinter differetly than honey bees. Generally, a queen buries into the ground in late summer, bumble bees are an example, or eggs are laid in narrow cavities, like holes in trees, backfilled with mud or the like, until spring’s warmer temperatures beckon them to emerge and repopulate.
Once again, it all comes down to the birds and the bees. While the winter solstice signals shorter nights and longer days, it also ushers in colder temperatures so winter will feel long and cold to us yet. We’ve only just had a taste of winter’s cold and snow as of now and we have many months ahead of us that will keep us inside more, perhaps to slow down a little during this time, conserving our energy for the great burst of activity that will arrive in spring when gardens again need tending and the outdoors beckon, just as in nature. The winter solstice ultimately offers the promise of new life ahead if we just hang on and believe. Another lesson from the beehive- perserverence.
In the depth of winter I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer.
– Albert Camus