Winter: An Update

We have not had a lot of success in keeping bees alive these past winters. We’ve had struggles with nosema, starvation, and weather beyond our control.  Every year we vow to do something different, and we do, but then something else seems to kill them.

This year we were fairly aggressive in keeping the mite population in check as one of our theories was the bees were weaker than they looked going into the winter months.  We also only took 2-3 frames of honey total (from our then 6 hives), so there would be plenty of honey for the winter months.  Finally, we revamped our wind-block system.

In years past, we’ve seen record colds. One year there were too many cold days in a row for the bees to get out for cleansing flights. One year the well-below zero temps didn’t come until mid-February and the weak cluster just couldn’t sustain. So this year, we upgraded our plan of attack:

winterized hives

  • We moved all of the hives together onto a platform.
  • We surrounded the hives with insulation, leaving holes for entering/ventilation.
  • The platform is sitting on bricks, and through the bricks we ran a piece of heating cable. This way, if the temperature of the brick falls below 34 degrees, the cable will kick on and heat up. Brick is a good conductor of heat, so we’re hoping it will produce enough radiant heat to just take the edge off.

Of course, the year we OVER prepare for frigid temperatures, is the year we have an unseasonably warm winter! So in the middle of December, when the temp is usually in the 30’s, it was in the 50’s and the bees were flying like crazy. This is great for hive hygiene, but more flying means less clustering which means the bees are burning more energy. Naturally, then, they’ll eat more honey.  We need those honey stores to last until at least April, May ideally, so we made some giant fondant cakes and put them out near the hives.

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In the fall we started with 4 hives and a nuc. We lost the nuc pretty early on and one of the weaker hives, so we currently have three really strong hives. You can see the entrances to each hive below:

winterized hives enterances

Today it’s a balmy 29 degrees and what little snow we have has completely frozen into a hard, slippery ice carpet, if you will. This means that when I went out to feed the chickens and check on the hives, I was able to see evidence of hive cleaning. All those little black dots on the ground are dead bees.

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While you might think this is a bad thing, it’s actually a good sign as it tells us the hives are alive and active. When bees die inside the hive (which happens much more in the winter than summer because they are all cooped up), worker bees toss the bodies out the front door.  Sounds disrepectful, I know, but it used to make our chickens happen when they roamed by the bee hives!

So I will cautiously end this post with a “so far, so good.” As I’ve learned you can never be too careful when wintering bees. Last year we thought it was smooth sailing when we had a living hive in February and then it died out near the end of the month after a cold snap!

Happy Beekeeping!

Preparing for Winter: Part One

Preparing Hives for Winter

Well it’s that time of year. The leaves are changing, the nights are cooler, and the bees are preparing for winter.  Here is an overview of first round of winterizing. In another month or so we will attach insulation and probably change our feeding system, but that’s a discussion for another, colder, day!

We started this process about two weeks ago (I’m running a little behind in the blog-o-sphere).

  • About two months ago we treated the hives with food grade mineral oil as a mite treatment. We’ve been using the powdered sugar method all summer, but wanted to do one last “big” push. The husband has been reading about a method to use a diffuser that basically sprays a fine mist of oil over the bees. It doesn’t hurt them and the mites fall off and die.  After our first attempt, the bottom boards were COVERED with mites. I was worried about the health of the bees, but we’ve treated twice and they seem to be just fine. Some people don’t like this method because mineral oil is a petroleum-based product, but I figure if we’re only doing it once or twice a year it’s still better than those chemical treatments on the market.
  • Most recently we headed out to evaluate each hive. We lifted the corner slightly to determine weight (heavier means more honey) and, since we were out on a sunny, but cool day, we opened the hives only to do a quick inspection of honey stores and general health. Hive populations start to slow down this time of year because the workers kick out the drones (who then freeze and die). I know that sounds harsh, but consider that drones only hang out, eat all summer, and carry mites AND they only really have their sperm to offer the world, so hit the road, boys! As we evaluated each hive, we made notes of which seemed weak, too small, or lacking in honey. We’ll probably feed all the hives all winter, but we want to be especially vigilant with the weaker ones.
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  •  Speaking of weaker ones, we had two nuc hives that we combined to make one larger one. We did this with the newspaper method. This method is pretty simple: combine a small/weak hive with (ideally) a larger/stronger one by killing (or relocating) the queen in the small hive, then stacking the weaker hive on top of the stronger one with only 1-2 sheets of newspaper between the two. Over the course of the next few days the moisture will soften and tear the newspaper and the bees will work their way through and merge in an harmonious fashion.  We’ve never had any problems with this method, so we did this with two of our weaker nucs.

Another benefit of merging small hives with large hives is the more bees, the larger the cluster that forms in the winter and more bee bodies means more heat. We were also able to pool honey resources this way.

  • During this time we moved one of the hives that’s in a shaded part of the property into full sun. This time of year makes for warm days and cold nights, but we were worried that a hive in the shade all day wouldn’t warm up and dry out during the day.
  • Additionally we made sure everyone had food. This time of year we feed a 2:1 ratio (sugar to water), so the consistency is thick and syrup-like (like honey). This time of year flowers are few and far between and EVERYONE (bees, wasps, yellow jackets, etc) is in the market for food. Thus it is primetime for robbing. When we worked the hives we found all sorts of evidence of these food battles: beheaded wasps, bees fighting bees from other hives… Food supplies away from the hives can help keep other pollinators away from your bees and feeders INSIDE the hives will help keep your bees in their own place.
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This is my husband and 6-year-old headed out to feed the bees. The little one in the red jacket is my 2-year-old who thinks he’s going too, but we don’t have a tiny bee suit for him… yet!

  • Finally, we have one hive that we got when a friend’s neighbor cut down a tree. We’re going to attempt to overwinter this hive in the log, so we covered the top entrance and filled the two side entrances with straw. The bees can still fit in and out, but it keeps the entry point smaller which (1) reduces robbing and (2) helps insulate the vulnerable hive.
This is Shawn inspecting his hive. He is the one who called to tell us he had found the swarm!

This is Shawn inspecting his hive. He is the one who called to tell us he had found the swarm!

We have a few things on the to-do list before we can consider the hives officially winterized. As I mentioned earlier, we will insulate the hives and continue feeding. This year we are heading into winter with 8 hives, so we’re thinking about doing some experimenting. We are thinking of moving all of the hives close together and next to the chicken coop (sheltered from the wind) and I would like to try and overwinter one INSIDE the coop, taking advantage of the heat the chickens give off.

So that’s the state of the apiary this week, things are winding down. In the meantime, enjoy the most recent bee-related artwork from my little one:

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Mountain Camp Winter Feeding Method

Originally written January 16, 2015 for the Kalamazoo Bee Club

It’s great when your bees provide food for you, but every so often in a beekeeper’s career, she provides food for the bees. There are a million opinions about whether or not one should feed bees throughout the year and a million and one opinions about how this feeding should happen. I’m simply going to explain one feeding method that we have tried this year, the reason why, and our experience with it thus far.

As you may remember, none of my four hives produced very much honey this year, so my husband and I knew that we were going to have to feed throughout the winter if we had any hope of the bees surviving. When beekeepers feed in the winter, they generally feed a sugar-water mixture. This can be made and served in various forms:

  • Syrup- To make this feed you use a sugar to water ratio (changes depending on the thickness you desire). Your success with this method depends a lot on the container you use to hold the liquid. It can be messy and if it drips too quickly or leaks, your bees can drown. In the winter, the liquid can freeze, so it’s not really a winter-feeding option (in Michigan, at least!). These recipes are very flexible, so they can take anywhere from 2 cups of sugar to 10 pounds (depending on how much syrup you need, of course).

Photo source: beekeepers.amazingbees.au

  • Fondant- This is fairly easy to do. Here’s a great how-to.  You can make fondant easily at home and harden it in any size mold or container you want. This is the method my husband and I usually use, assuming the bees have a normal amount of honey in the fall. We make fondant “cakes” (I harden them in a silicone muffin pan) and then in those first few weeks of spring when the snow has melted, but the dandelions aren’t up yet, we throw a few in each hive. We generally make ours out of one or two five pound bags of sugar and then make more as needed (depends how many hives you are feeding, of course). In the image below, Rusty from HoneyBeeSuite has used paper plates as her molds.

fondant

  • Candyboard- This is similar to fondant, but a better option if you need to feed long-term (like all winter, ahem). Here’s a nice tutorial. You basically make a giant fondant board and place it at the top of the hive, so the bees can eat all winter. Making one of these requires about 12-16 lbs of sugar.As we faced a winter of feeding, we decided to do some research just to be sure that a candyboard was our best option. In our research, we stumbled up the Mountain Camp method and decided, Why not? Beekeeping is about taking chances. Let’s give a try!

  • Mountain Camp Method

    What is it?

    The Mountain Camp Method, simply put, is feeding with dry sugar. It differs from the methods listed above because you use no water or heat to prepare the sugar.

    The name came from a beekeeping message board on BeeSource.com. A user, named Mountain Camp, introduced it. It plays on the idea that when you are camping, you often have to rely on simplified methods of doing things and so he offered this simplified feeding method.

    Set-Up

    It’s pretty simple. In fact, so simple that when my husband and I finished our first hive I said, “There’s no way this will work. It’s too easy!”

    What we did was take the hive cover off and placed a rim feeder that my husband built. It was maybe two-three inches deep. You could probably use an empty box, but we didn’t want to run the risk that the bees would build comb in there. Not to mention, in the winter we want as little air space as possible to keep the hive warm. You can buy rim feeders, but we built ours out of scrap wood.

    We then put down a layer of newspaper, just one or two sheets thick. Lay this right on the tops of the frames. It doesn’t need to fit edge-to-edge, in fact a piece that lays in the middle and leaves about an inch around the edges works great.  Most importantly, you don’t want any of the newspaper to hang outside of the hive. If this happens, the paper will get wet and the moisture will move right down the paper into your sugar and into your hive.

    Then, we poured in sugar, direct from the bag. You’ll just pour as much sugar over the newspaper as you can fit without spilling into the hive.

    mountain camp diagram

  • How It WorksThe bees keep the interior of the hive quite warm during the winter months and this heat and condensation works to kind of melt the newspaper as well as turn the exposed sugar into candy. When you make a fondant cake or a candyboard, you are basically adding water and heat to solidify the sugar. When you use this method of feeding, you are using the heat and moisture from the hive to do the work for you.Here’s what it looks like after the bees have started eating:

bees eating sugar

Does it Work?

So far, I can say yes. We peek under the lid whenever the weather is mild and all four hives are alive, thriving, and eating. When the sugar looks low, we dump a little more in. It’s still early, in terms of winter survival predictions, so it’s hard for me to completely endorse this method, but so far, this has worked well for us.

Of course you don’t want to open up the hive too much if it’s too cold or too windy. This winter has been great because there have been some mild days sprinkled throughout. If you must go into the hive (to add sugar, for example), just do it as quickly as possible.

One other benefit of this method I’ve been toying around with, is it seems like a great way to absorb excess moisture in a useful way. It’s a delicate balance keeping a hive warm, but not too moist due to condensation, so I like the idea of solving two problems at once.

Here are some other resources for this method:

         Watch:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xoUNDdcBx90

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HSmR5rAb8ss

         Read:

http://www.honeybeesuite.com/mountain-camp-feeding/

http://www.indianahoney.org/2013/02/Mountain-Camp-Method-of-Feeding-Sugar.cfm

http://www.kybeeco.com/emergency-winter-feeding-bees/

Dissecting a Dead Hive

Today the temp was in the low 50’s, so it was a good day to get out and take a look at the hives and perform a hive autopsy, if you will.

The Nuc

We attempted to winter a small nuc. Five of the ten frames were full of honey and we wondered, when temps were holding steady at the minus -20 mark, if that hive would stay warm enough. It wasn’t that big (bee population-wise) and I think the honey provides some insulation, and this hive didn’t have much honey. Well, needless to say, it does look like they might have frozen. What’s cool about finding them this way is that you can really get an idea of what the winter cluster looks like. Normally we don’t get to see this because, when they are clustered for warmth, it’s too cold to open the hive. So this is cool from an educational standpoint, but sad, obviously because they died.

Here’s a top-view. If you look closely, you can kind of see the bees clustered in a ball in the center:

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Here’s a view of the frames pulled out and opened accordion-style. The bees seem to be literally frozen in place, which is why we think it was just too cold for this one to survive. Here’s you can see how they were clustered in a ball:

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Here’s an example of how close the bees were to the honey. The honey is the lighter patch to the right on the frame in the bottom portion of the photo. They won’t leave the cluster to eat if they are too cold. The fact that honey is present tells us that they didn’t starve to death.

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The Big Hives

The larger hives showed signs of dysentery. Dysentery is basically diarrhea. Evidence of this is the black spotting on the tops of the frames:

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More on the inside of the inner cover:

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In the larger hives, the bees were all over the place, which is what you’d expect to find if they died at different times of sickness (unlike the cluster where they seem to have frozen together).  Here’s the bottom board – this is just an insane amount of dead bees:

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And so we begin the clean-up process. All the frames with dysentery need to be scraped and cleaned. We’re hoping to get our new packaged mid-April.

MI Beekeepers’ Assoc: “Pondering the Winter of 2013/2014”

This is a GREAT article I just happened upon from the Michigan Beekeepers’ Association website. It summarizes many immediate concerns facing keepers this year.

BY , ON FEBRUARY 23RD, 2014

Pondering the Winter of 2013/2014


This writer predicts that the winter of 2013/2014 will go down as one of the largest, if not the largest, die offs of managed honey bee colonies in North American history.

It is too soon to tell whether or not this prediction will come true, as the data has not yet been compiled; it probably won’t be for another 6 to 9 months.  But the stars are aligned, we think, for bad news.

Here in the north (we are in Michigan), the current problem seems to have started in the spring of 2012 when we had unheard of 80 degree temperatures in the first week of March.  (As we write this in 2014, the first week of March is only two weeks away and there are plenty of single digit lows predicted until then.  What a difference a couple of years can make.)

Those record breaking balmy days set the whole floral community ahead by about 4 weeks.  And it stayed that way right up until winter set in.  The fall flowers (golden rod and asters) which normally support the last rounds of brood rearing of winter bees did not come at the right time (way too early).  Consequently, the colonies went into the winter of 2012/2013 in bad shape.  And, of course, the colonies came out of the winter of 2012/2013 in pretty bad shape too.

The summer flow of 2013 for many colonies was not too bad.  But the colonies were struggling.  A huge swath of territory across the northern tier of states had a pretty severe draught at the end of the summer and into the fall of last year.  And this scenario doesn’t even count the historic draught in California and the southwest.

The colonies went into the fall of 2013 (last fall) very light and short of stores.  At our local bee club meetings, the word was out last fall to start feeding your bees.  Despite heavy feeding, we lost three hives (of 12) by late fall.

With the colonies already stressed and lacking stores, the winter of 2013/2014 has also not been kind to our bees.  Record low temperatures, record high snow fall amounts, no suitable days for cleansing flights and a winter that just keeps hanging on is taking its toll.

By mid February, we have lost 7 more colonies and are down to just two.  We have no hope for one hive; the other looks a bit better but the spring resources are still many weeks away.

This tale of woe is shared by virtually every beekeeper we speak to.  And the reports from other areas and other states sound all too familiar.

None of this even begins to consider the impact of varroa mites, for which it is becoming all too obvious that the mite is winning the race to develop sustainable strategies that will bring this critter under control.

The Silver Lining
Beekeepers sit at the intersection of farmers and crazy people.  We share the traits of both.  Like farmers, we are eternal optimists.  Like crazy people, we are… well crazy.

20140223_CrazyWe are passionate about our bees and tend not to give up so easily.  Our club’s group purchase of packaged bees for spring 2014 increased by 250% from last year despite the cost approaching $100 per.  Replacement nucs are well north of that figure, if you can find them.  Even at these sky high prices, demand will far exceed supply.  As we said… crazy.

Despite this gloom and doom, some of our bees (perhaps many) will survive this winter season.  The bees that make it will have done so for a reason.  Perhaps it is blind luck, but perhaps more likely these survivors have something going for them that gave them an edge.

And therein lies the silver lining that we see in this otherwise dark cloud.  We should be paying attention to the bees that make it to spring’s first bloom.

As beekeepers we face a decision as to how we are going to manage this year’s colonies.  We will have to either manage for honey or manage for splits and increases.  You really cannot have it both ways.  Large honey crops need a large population of bees in the hive.

When we split colonies we, by definition, knock back the hive population.  If the bee gods are smiling, these splits should do just fine; though they probably won’t make large surpluses of honey for the beekeeper to rob.  Particularly if we make multiple splits from the daughter colonies.

But we may have an opportunity here to give our honey bee stock a huge shot in the arm by purposely making multiple splits from those colonies that survive the winter of 2013/2014.  Simply put, we need the genes that gave our survivors their edge.

A Strategy to Consider
There are a lot of beekeepers out there that have thought long and hard about breeding a better honey bee.  Two names come quickly to mind: Randy Oliverez and Larry Conner.  Both have written extensively on the subject.  Larry Conner’s book “Increase Essentials” is… well, essential reading for all beekeepers.  The basic premise is that beekeepers should run at least 2-1/2 hives.  The1/2 part being a nuc.  Then with 50% losses over the winter, a mark which we will easily hit this year, the beekeeper will still have two viable hives come the spring.  It is good advice.

Personally, we have come down on the side of managing our colonies for splits, knowing full well that our summer 2014 honey crop will probably suffer.  But at close to $100 per pop for replacement colonies, breeding our own is making a lot of economic sense.  How many hives did you have last year that yielded more than $100 in honey?

So we are proposing beekeepers consider the following strategies to build their colonies back to the number they want.

1.  Use their survivor colonies for splits and queen rearing.  We need those genes.  If you have a complete loss then partner with other beekeepers in your area for splits and queen grafting from their survivors.  It will be in everyone’s interest to help their neighboring beekeepers.  Again, we need those survivor genes.

2.  Improve your skills in managing hives for splits.  A good place to start is reading (or rereading) Larry Conner’s book “Increase Essentials”.  He also has several other books in this series that would be well worth reading too (“Queen Rearing Essentials”, “Bee Essentials” and “Bee Sex Essentials” are three more that come to mind).

3.  Improve your skills in grafting queens.  Many local clubs will hold classes on this subject later this spring.  Go to them and learn how to graft.  It is not hard and can be a lot of fun and very satisfying.  Use larvae from survivor hives, either your own or your local beekeepers.  We need those survivor genes in the pool.

4.  Consider managing a split from a survivor colony for drone production.  Drones are half of the equation and are important.  Managing a colony for drone production is not that hard.  You can simply put in drone foundation and the bees will take care of the job themselves.  This needs to be done early in the spring as that is the time when drones are most needed.  Encourage other beekeepers in your area to do the same.  The idea is to saturate the area with survivor drones since drones from your apiary probably will not mate with your virgin queens.

5.  Many beekeepers will be starting with packages this spring.  The packages will be coming either from the south (such as Georgia) or the west (California).  These bees have never seen a snowflake in their life and there is growing concern that they are ill suited for survival in our northern winters.  Using packages to restart a colony is OK, but maybe we should consider requeening these packages with queens reared from survivor colonies.  Graft queens from survivors and then put these queens in your package colonies.

6.  If grafting or raising your own queens is too intimidating, then consider purchasing commercially raised queens.  Try to support those entrepreneurs who are trying to raise “northern” queens.  Don’t be shy in asking questions.  Queen breeders work hard to provide a quality product and should not be offended when given a chance to explain their production methods.

7.  Fall requeening is OK.  In fact, the whole practice of requeening colonies during the spring is a rather recent development in the beekeeping world.  Times were that queens were always replaced in the late summer or early fall.  Of course, seek northern raised queens.

8.  If some of your survivor colonies swarm, that is OK.  There is nothing wrong with having feral colonies from your survivor stock.  These feral colonies will help spread the survivor gene pool (from their drones).

Fellow beekeepers, hang in there.  You need to be stubborn (that’s the farmer part of beekeeping) and keep trying (that’s the crazy part).  Keeping bees is just as rewarding as ever; we just have to have a strategy to keep it that way.

(Editor’s note:  the opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author.)

Dysentery in the Hive

I was thinking of writing a post about all the things that can kill off a hive in the winter. Then, yesterday, my husband was able to get out and check the hives (it was 45 degrees!) and discovered that two of them have died. So this post is suddenly very timely.  One of the hives was our original hive and, by far, the strongest of the four. We lost a nuc early on, so now we are down to only one small hive and it seems to be struggling.

I’m actually quite sad about the loss of the main hive, and not just because it means we have to shell out more money for nucs in the spring. That was our first hive ever and one we’ve been working for two years.  The queen seemed strong, and the hive’s disposition was very gentle. We were happy to be splitting this one and hoping to pass on the hive’s disposition and general hardiness.

Here’s a nostalgic look at the day we brought that first nuc home. It was five frames that, over the course of two years, we turned into 3 hives and one nuc.  We also raise chickens for eggs and food and I have to admit I’m quite sad over the loss of these hives, whereas, the loss of a chicken feels kind of par for the course.

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Thus, I present to you (read in loud, booming voice): Things That Can Kill Your Hives – Dysentery Edition

We are fairly sure dysentery is what killed our two large hives, so I’ll start with this. Dysentery isn’t so much a disease, but a condition that develops. The short version is that bees need some warmish days (45 degrees or warmer) to leave the hive and defecate. If they can’t leave, they hold it in. You don’t need a biology degree to know that holding in your poo for too long is unhealthy. In fact, it’s a concept I’ve been discussing with my 4-year-old quite a bit lately. Bees can only hold about 30 to 40% of their body weight in fecal matter, so if the weather doesn’t cooperate, they are forced to defecate inside the hive.

When I look back at the weather for the month of January, I see two days only where the projected high was 40, but the low for the day was 32. There was also rain/snow mix these days, so not an ideal day to be flying. December was worse. I found one day with a projected high of 38. The worst part about all of this is that, as a beekeeper, there’s really nothing you can do. We kept the entrance clear so that the bees could get out if they were feeling brave and also so they could deposit any dead bees, but mostly we just had to wait.

On one of those mild January days, my husband was able to peek inside and the smell immediately clued him in as to what was going on. He said the inside of the hives looked like they had been splattered with mud (it was bee poo). So now you have a scenario where your bees’ immune systems are compromised from being sick, they are living in unsanitary conditions, and also the food supply is splattered with fecal matter. It’s pretty easy to see how this can cause the quality of the hive to deteriorate quickly.

Dysentery can also affect a hive if the bees eat old or fermenting honey, or if they eat a lot of honey that is darker in color (like buckwheat honey, for example). This type of honey contains harder to digest particles and too much of this can cause dysentery, but this is not a condition of our hives either.

I’m hoping to get some pictures of our hive and the aftermath of this incident up soon, so be sure to check back!

Some Additional Resources

Edinburgh and Midlothian Beekeepers’ Association, “Bee Diseases and their Management”

HoneyBeeSuite.com, “A great day for honey bees: down with dysentery”

What the Heck do Bees DO all Winter Long?

I’m no biologist, my point here really is just to provide some insight into what we’ve learned in our quest to find answers to our many bee-related questions.. Please do share your knowledge and experience if it differs, but also know that we are just figuring things out as we go!

Last year our bees weathered our mild Michigan winter well. They (and we) did everything the textbooks suggested and we all came through it healthy and confident.  This year, winter has thrown us a bit of a curve ball.  Michigan winters are traditionally cold and snowy, but the last few years, things have been a bit more on the mild side. Well, this year, we are back on track it seems.  We’ve had a handful of record-breaking cold days as well as wind and record snowfall.  This prompted my husband and I to lay in bed one night, listening to the wind gust, and wonder…

– What exactly do the bees do all winter long? Especially if winter is especially long?

– Do they ever go out of the hive?

– We know they survive cold, but this cold? And for this long?

– What will we do if the snow drifts over the hives?

– Will they run out of food? When? How will we know? What will we do?

Yikes!  (Don’t even get me started on the night we laid awake and worried about the chickens!) Any one of these topics could probably be addressed in a novel-sized response, so I’ll just summarize some of our thoughts and findings on each, but in a few posts over the next few days.

What do bees do all winter?

Bumblebees and wasps, for example, go dormant, but honey bees actually need to keep themselves alive all winter. Short answer: they vibrate their wings to stay warm and eat honey to stay alive.

Long answer: At the onset of winter, the worker bees force the drone bees out of the hive. The drones will basically starve to death and die. Harsh, I know. It’s important, however, to whittle the colony down to “just the necessities” in order to survive.  The queen stops laying and everyone hunkers down around the honey. My favorite detail about bees in winter is the ball they form to keep everyone warm and fed. Here’s a great description:

The honey bee workers form a cluster around the queen and brood, keeping

them warm. They keep their heads pointed inward. Bees on the inside of the cluster can feed on the stored honey. The outer layer of workers insulates their sisters inside the sphere of honey bees. As ambient temperatures rise, the bees on the outside of the group separate a bit, to allow more air flow. As temperatures fall, the cluster tightens, and the outer workers pull together. (source)

Here’s an overhead view of a winter cluster from Stevens Bees. I can’t offer a picture from our own hive (yet, at least) because it’s been way too cold to open the top too much. In the picture, the white clumps are fondant (more on this later).

So this is what winter looks like in a hive. The honey provides the necessary energy to keep them alive. The bees vibrate their wings (or shiver, if you will) to stay warm and with all these little bee bodies vibrating at one time, in one big cluster, I’ve read the hive temperature can exceed 90 degrees. Nice and toasty, I’d say.  Another detail I love is that, as the bees on the outside of the cluster start to feel chilled or hungry, they shove their way into the center of the cluster to warm up and new bees take their turns on the outside. Smart little buggers, I mean, bugs.

As simple as this seems, various things can still kill them.  I read a while ago that bees are actually quite hardy and rarely is it the straight-out cold that kills them. Symptoms of the cold are usually what does it.  I’ll focus on this in my next post.