Of all the pests and diseases that can weaken or kill a honey bee hive, if there’s one thing we’ve learned about raising honey bees through our first year, it’s that winter is one of the hardest things for the bees to endure.  The fact that we live at 7600 feet altitude, with winter temperatures lasting roughly 5 months, certainly doesn’t help.  As a result of this, you can imagine our elation when the established hives we had purchased in the fall of 2011 pulled through the first winter relatively unscathed.  As it turned out, they were so healthy and vigorous, we had two hives swarm (our fault for not being more knowledgeable and preventing it!).  We caught one swarm and purchased 2 bee packages in the spring of 2012.  They were able to build up just enough honey stores to get them safely through the winter, but not enough for us to harvest.  Even if they have enough honey to get through the winter, however, there are dangers.  To understand these dangers, you must first understand a few things about bee behavior.

A cluster of bees.  In this case, it is a swarm in a tree.  Source: Internet Stock Photo

A cluster of bees. In this case, it is a swarm in a tree.
Source: Internet Stock Photo

As winter arrives, the female worker bees chase all the male drone bees out of the hive, essentially causing them to die. The girls don’t want any extra mouths to feed (and we all know how much boys can eat!!).  When temperatures dip below 50 degrees (F), it is too cool for them to fly, so they stay inside the hive.  As the temps continue to drop, all the workers gather into a clustered ball around the queen, who temporarily stops laying eggs.  This clustering ensures the queen is the warmest, most protected, and has the easiest access to food (honey) stores.  The cluster of workers rotates their bodies throughout the ball, so all have a turn at eating and being warm, and all have a turn at exposing themselves to nearly frigid temps on the outside of the cluster.  Except for the motion of the workers rotating, though, the cluster itself does not change position in the hive at all.  When temps rise over 50*, the workers will fly out of the hive for a “cleansing flight” in which they will eliminate all their stored bodily waste materials, as well as “clean house”.  They clean out any dead bees or other foreign things they don’t want in the hive by tossing them out the front entrance.  The warmer temps also give the queen and the workers a chance to move upward or sideways to new honey stores before the next freezing temps arrive.  As long as winter temperatures have periodic warm spells (like we did last winter), this process is repeated throughout the winter–flying on warm days, clustering on cold days and nights.

This sounds like a great system until you understand the dangers of that stationary cluster.  If the temps remain cold enough to keep the cluster in position long enough, then the honey stores run out.  They literally starve to death, while surrounded on all sides with rich, capped, honey that they couldn’t get to.  This is called “Honey-bound,” and is a very common hive killer at these cold altitudes.

Unfortunately, we had an unseasonably warm November and December, which means the bees did a lot of flying, thus burning calories, but there was no food to eat except their honey stores.  Therefore, they ate more honey than normal by mid-winter.  Then, just before Christmas, we were hit with absolutely frigid temperatures that lasted almost 6 straight weeks.  The temps never got warm enough during this time for the bees to uncluster and change position or perform a cleansing flight.  You cannot open the hive during these cold periods.  The clusters of bees produce an incredible amount of heat that remains in the hive.  If we opened the top, it would release that stored heat.  The only real way to check for life is to bang on the outside of the hive, and listen for buzzing inside.  Pretty scientific!

As the cold weeks passed, S got an increasingly sinking feeling that he was going to lose all his bees.  We haven’t seen any sign of life for so long.  I finally convinced him to go out today and at least tap and listen.  We went, and found that two hives had audible buzzing.  One was strong enough that they stand a chance of survival now that we are through the worst of the cold temps.  The other was rather weak, and we aren’t sure of their future.  We couldn’t hear any buzzing in the remaining 4 hives, which means they are either all dead, or enough have died that there is little to no chance the remaining clusters will survive.

If the forecast holds true, then around mid-week, our temps should be warm enough to allow the bees their first cleansing flight since before Christmas (imagine not using a toilet in 6 weeks!).  The activity we observe that day will give us a much better feel of their condition and overall health and energy.  We also plan to open all the hives and check for remaining honey stores.  If they are running low, we will add some frames of honey we set aside last fall for just such a problem.

We like to be optimistic, and find the good in things.  In this case, although 2 hives out of 6 is not exactly something to brag about (if that’s what it turns out to be), it does mean we might have extra honey to harvest–as much as 40-80 lbs.  Due to our drought this past year, we were not able to harvest any for ourselves.  The bees were only able to make and store enough to get them through the winter.  We had a few extra frames full of honey, but decided to store those in the freezer in the event of a long winter.  That may prove to have been a wise choice.  In addition, it means we will have fewer active hives to move back to Red Gate when we move.  That wasn’t going to be easy!

Even though the bees really are more of S’s project, it’s kinda funny how much of an interest I’ve started to take.  I truly rejoiced with him today when we discovered at least 2 hives still hanging on.  We are both so eager to see what the warm weather inspection will find.  I really do hope they survive.  It’s really like losing any other animal on the farm to lose the bees.  Their pollination service and their honey are very valuable on a homestead, plus they really grow on you after a while!!