Voice of the Hive: At the edge of existence
E21 has never known the light of the summer sun. Hatched in the darkness of the brood nest, she emerged into a world that contracts and shrinks with the distant winter sun, the world of the winter cluster.
Before she could fly E21 worked for the good of the colony, beating her wing muscles to generate heat. One day when the temperatures rose and the cluster dissolved to feed she ventured to the bottom of a comb. The floor of the hive was littered with wax cappings stripped from cells as the colony fed. From the entrance to the hive shone a bright, cold light but with it came a cold breeze that numbed her. She retreated to the safety of the brood nest taking a full stomach of honey with her. She shares this honey with the others and they with her. Together in this way they have passed many bitter nights. Some bees will live their entire life this way, born in darkness and abandoned to the cold when they die but E21 lives at a time of change.
Day by day the light has grown longer, stronger and this has triggered a new instinct in the colony. The queen, who barely laid in the fall and ceased entirely in the depths of winter, has begun to lay again. In the summer the foragers packed many cells full of pollen, far more than they needed. Those foragers are dead and their memory has passed from the colony but not their legacy. It was for this time that they prepared. The colony now uses its precious stores to feed a rush of new bees.
Where the cluster once moved freely about the hive they are now rooted to the brood, who must be kept warm. By day they fan out to retrieve food, by night they cling obstinately to the brood, struggling to protect them from the cold. Sometimes the brief break a nurse bee takes to feed is too long and the larva succumbs to the cold, but E21 is dedicated to her duty. She would stay with them to the death.
The queen keeps the brood close together through the winter but during a warm spell, she lays a few eggs further down than the others. E12 begins caring for the just hatched larvae at the far edge of the brood nest, unaware that fate has set in motion the events that will lead to her death. That very evening a cold front drives the clouds away and this drive to expand becomes deadly. A niche of bees has formed about the tiny patch of brood and they will not abandon them.
As temperatures inside the hive drop the main cluster shrinks, abandoning brood only as they die. The space between bees becomes smaller, the heat shared greater, and a thousand more stomachs share food to survive.
Just inches from the main cluster this smaller band of bees struggles on their own. Without the shared heat they must work harder. This means burning more food. During the day the depleted food stores are just out of reach. As the main cluster moves higher and higher, fewer bees pass the tiny cluster on their way back from feeding. Then the final night comes.
The tiny patch of brood is only a few cells large now and the bees are exhausted. As their stomachs run dry so does their ability to warm the brood, and as the night hours slip by, the last one succumbs to the chill. Now the nurse bees band together. E12 slips to the heart of this tiny ball, waiting with no sense of time for the sunrise. It will never come. It is too far to the main cluster for them to make a crawl for it, so they cling to each other and continue to try and keep warm. All of their energy was spent on the now dead brood. In the bitter cold of early morning E12 twitches a few final times, and then the micro cluster is dead.
A few days later with warmer temperatures mortuary bees drag bodies from the hive. Among them is the bee known as E21. Born in the darkness, raised in the warmth of the brood nest, she has given her life to the change of the seasons and the demand that the colony grow.
The view of the Hive from the House
If you stand down at the edge of the garden as the night falls, the smell of honey and wax drifts up the hill toward the house. With it comes a low humming, constant despite the wind. It is a sound that heralds spring and the sudden thrust of the colony toward starvation or success.
Spring is coming with the maples though you wouldn't tell from the weather, fifty degree days and forty degree nights. The bees know. They know in the way that they know all time, by the ebb and flow of the sun. Though it is hidden from view they have known from the winter equinox and begun a shift in behavior that will bring the colony roaring into spring or kill it in the attempt.
In the bitter cold of winter the bee garden was silent. I stood by it in the snow, listening for signs of life, and hearing only the sound of the falling snow. In the cold they hung on, clustered tightly together, their wings vibrating to generate heat, but just enough to live. This was actually the safest way to survive winter, as they consumed very little food.
Even then at the heart of the cluster the colony continued its business of breeding, a tiny handful of brood raised where the cluster could heat both sides of the comb. These winter bees had never taken a orientation flight, never left the dark safety of the hive, but they represented both the future hope for the hive, and its greatest danger. Fall bees eat more pollen, and live months longer than their summer sisters but they are not forever. Only new brood would have the strength to forage in the first cool days of spring. The danger lay in the bee's instinctive drive to care for their brood. The sound from the hive is the sound of bees vibrating their wings to keep the brood warm, a balmy 90 degrees even in the depths of winter. A sudden cold snap can cause the cluster to contract sharply, covering only the tiny brood nest. If a patch of brood is isolated the nurse bees will not abandon them. A tiny sub-cluster forms, dedicated to saving the larva. The cold of winter is merciless and they die with the brood they struggled to save, starving to death as often as freezing.
I found such a patch when I tore down the hive for a frame by frame cleaning. A patch of brood the size of my palm still covered in dead bees. Some still had their heads stuck into cells where they starved to death looking for food long gone. I brushed them off. Future generations would clean out the dead brood, polish the cells and grow over this dead patch. In time only scars on the wax would tell it was there. As for the main cluster, the queen was well and working hard at expanding the work force. I found her at the edge of the brood nest laying in cells that had not held bees for months. In a few weeks there would be a massive population boom.
The change in behavior from hanging on to building up is as unavoidable as the risk that comes with it. The colony must build up in order to take advantage of the nectar flows that come with the spring, maple and cherry, but to do so is a gamble. Winter stores are dangerously low in early spring and though the foragers find pollen everywhere nectar is scarce. Without it they will starve. Their winter stores are not enough to survive until summer is full on but if the rush of new workers arrives before the food to sustain them, the colony will starve in a matter of days, destroyed by its own drive to succeed. If the workers arrive too late they will miss the nectar flows and again push the colony as a whole toward the edge of its existence.
This is nature. This is life.
In this environment the bees have lived for millions of years, each colony every year surviving or dying at the drive of instinct and the intersection of environment and weather. I worry about if they will make it but probably for nothing. Their clock may be their own but it has been set and tuned for ages beyond my imagination for the survival not of a single bee nor of a single colony but of the species.
The Hive at Home
Winter is the time of rest for the beekeeper. Spring is not. With the shift to longer days the instinct of the colony shifts. When the first dandelions bloom and the pollen starts coming in, the queen begins to ramp up laying. What do you do?
Feed, if the colony needs it. You can tell if they need it by lifting the edge of the box. Bees and comb are light – it’s the stores that are heavy. If the box feels light you need to feed. 1:1 sugar water will stimulate more growth but if you commit the colony to growth you had better be prepared to see it through. A colony can starve in just days. 2:1 syrup or high fructose corn syrup will feed the bees without stimulating as much growth.
When choosing how to feed keep in mind your temperatures. In very cold weather the bees cannot break the cluster to move about and access stores. The absolute total emergency way to food is to place a sheet of newspaper over the inner cover (fold or cut it, the goal is to provide a platform, not a blockade) and sprinkle sugar over the paper. If anything better is available the bees will ignore it. If they are starving and can reach it they will feed.
A second type of emergency feed is a candy board. A candy board is an inner cover with a deep lip. Candy fondant is cast into the lip and allowed to harden. Placed directly on top of the top bars the bees naturally move up and can eat the candy to survive. Again this is a stop gap measure.
If you own a hive top feeder remember that even starving bees might not be able to make it up to the syrup to feed. They can starve to death with honey or syrup just out of reach. So what to do about that? One option is to feed warm syrup. The bees will automatically gravitate toward the warmth and food.
Another thing to consider would be feeding with a boardman feeder over the top bars. Be careful! A leaky feeder could leak syrup over the bees, and the cold will kill them all if that happens. A feeder just off to the side of the cluster or one that doesn’t leak is a better choice. If the bees can move about during the day, they can move to the feeder enough to suck the syrup out. Watch the syrup level closely – if you need to feed, you’ll probably need to feed for the rest of spring.
The choice is yours. Pollen patties can be produced from soy flower and brewers yeast, but the bees won’t take them if real pollen is available. Wrap the hive in tar paper to increase solar gain, and make sure it has ventilation so that moisture buildup in the hive doesn’t kill them.
There is little the beekeeper can do to help at this stage, but the bees have survived for thousands of years without you, so relax. Build your woodenware. Wire your frames if you do so. Melt wax and read up. These days are short, but in the spring you will be busy enough for the rest of the year.