Borrowed Warmth

Fresh falling snow is a wondrous event where I live.† It paints the houses and roads in white and makes the world seem like a canvas made fresh and new again.† It also makes it easier to see the fate of dozens of bees who brave chill winds.

Honeybees cluster together whenever the weather is cold.† They do not leave this cluster at all for weeks on end.† When the temperature rises, however briefly, the workers are pushed to make a desperate flight or face death in the hive.

The reason for this flight is biological.† The bees have not left the cluster through the winter months and they will not defecate in the hive.† Their guts are packed now with the detritus left from consuming honey, primarily ash.† There is very little of it but bees are quite small.† Sixty percent of their weight might be fecal matter when they take this cleansing flight, so a brief rise above forty degrees drives the bees to take their turn and spin the wheel of fate.

In the summer different dangers await just outside the hive. Wasps, dragonflies, birds and man wait to take their toll.† In the winter it is the cold itself that lurks, waiting to chill their wing muscles.† Once chilled they can no longer fly and fall to the ground.† Death follows shortly.† Many of those leaving the hive will not make it back.† Some have never left the hive and get lost coming back.† Some are weak and succumb to the cold immediately.†† Their bodies pepper the white snow with dozens of brown and black dots.

I walked down †to the bee garden and listened, hoping to hear the cluster keeping itself warm.† The only sound was the soft falling snow.† I reached down in the snow and picked up one of the fallen bees and sighed.† This bee had all her hair.† She was still new, probably bred in the brood nest just a few months ago.†† She was ancient by her summer sisterís standards but brand new by winterís measuring stick.†

I held her in my hand and observed her wings, hardened but unscarred or fractured.† She had not lived long enough to work them away.† The snow that clung to her melted to water in my hands and ran away.†† That was when her antenna moved.

I wasnít sure at first, then I saw it again, the single twitch of an antenna.† I cupped my hands now against the evening and watched.†† Again the antenna twitched and a foot moved.† I breathed gently on her and waited.† ďBees will not tolerate impure air from human lungs,Ē says one of the precepts of beekeeping.† Bees will quite happily tolerate it if they are nearly frozen.† This one could have stung me at any point but chose not to.† She began to buzz and vibrate her wings and then to crawl.† On the flat of my hand she reached out her tongue and licked my palm.† I had carried syrup down for the feeder and my hands were sticky.†† She sat there for minutes warming herself and preening.† When she was done I placed my hand near the entrance to the hive.†

She looked at the entrance and crawled down to the tip of my fingers.† With a short hop she was inside the colony and soon safe within the heart of the cluster.† One by one I checked the other bees but there were no other miracles to be held and had.†† When the sun slipped again behind a gray pale I left the hive and made my way back to the house.† Would the lone bee survive to the spring?† Would I see her again on the warm days.† I didnít know.† I didnít need to.