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Winter Bee

December 13, 2010

After a week of frigid weather, a brief warm spell this past weekend found the homestead abuzz with activity. Hoses were running, the ducks were swimming, waterers and buckets were washed out, coolers were cleaned and I hitched the trailer to one of the Suburbans to gather salt marsh hay and seaweed from the Bay. As I pulled the trailer through the upper yard, I noticed the bees flying from our three hives. Even though we are months away from the most dangerous time of year for bees, I was heartened to see them all alive and humming.

Those near-50 temps felt like 60 to me, but we acclimate very fast to the cold as a result of being outside a lot and having some rooms in the house that remain 40 to 50 degrees all winter. Bees, however, don’t acclimate to the cold very well. It becomes hard for them to fly when temps go below 40 degrees. Instead, they hang out in the hive, clustering around the queen and trying to keep the center of the hive warm. They’ve kicked out all the boys, or drones, since they wouldn’t do anything to help keep the hive alive. Drones have only one job in the hive, to mate with the queen, and they only do that once, if they’re lucky. The fortunate males that get to pass on their genes explode upon ejaculation – I’ve seen it happen in the air over my house.

So, drone-free, the girls keep the homefires burning, if you will, and focus on insulating the queen. The winter colony is so singular in their purpose, they will starve rather than leave the queen. So a more numerous colony has a better chance of survival than a less populous group. Smart beekeepers will merge week colonies in the fall to up the census and improve the odds. (Place deep super of weak hive over deep super of strong hive with a sheet of newspaper in between; in the time it takes them to eat through the paper, they will acclimate to each others’ pheromones and merge peacefully, but if you haven’t killed one of the queens, they will battle to the death, sometimes at the peril of both.) We have one hive that might have benefited from a merger, but it is just on the positive side of the scale, so I decided to risk it, knowing I have a full deep super of honey frames frozen that can be thawed and added if they seem to be in trouble. If I haven’t lost you yet, there is some risk to this gamble, in that a small colony will not venture away from the winter cluster to feed on honey if they think their absence will result in the queen getting too cold. I have had colonies die of starvation in the winter with full frames of honey eight to ten inches away. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that we welcome the spring with three healthy colonies.

I parked the rig at the top of the property to unstick a gaping window at the 1900 house, and when I returned I noticed a honeybee perched on the trailer. She was wandering around very slowly, almost imperceptibly. Her wings weren’t buzzing, her abdomen wasn’t pumping or doing anything interesting. Though it may have been 45 degrees, there was a wind at the top of the hill where I found her, and she may have been trying to warm herself in the sun. Bees venture out in the winter when temps climb above 40 for one main reason – to poo. They don’t ‘release’ in the hive, so opportunities to ‘go’ outside must be relished. If you haven’t seen bee poop before, it looks like a 3 millimeter streak of yellow-orange, usually found on cars in a beekeeper’s yard. It’s not the kind of thing you would notice unless you’re looking for it or you happen to have hundreds of thousands of bees living on your property.

When bees do emerge in the winter, they aren’t the same characters one encounters in the hot, industrious summer. Docile doesn’t do the winter bee justice – they are utterly retarded. They leave the hive to expel poo, find the cool weather befuddling at best, then land to figure out what to do next with their limited resources. The bee on my trailer was totally out of gas. I extended a finger and she crawled on board, maybe because I was warm. I found a leaf and encouraged her to get on, then left her on the leaf in the sun in the spearmint garden. I knew she wouldn’t be able to handle the ride to Cape Cod Bay, and I hated to think of her being blown off on the road to be squashed by a car or lost forever, unable to fly home.

A touching moment communing with a foraging honeybee is a treat in December, but come July, we will be squishing bees as an inevitable consequence of handling supers, and we will precipitate their demises as they sting our gloves and legs while we are working the hives. Honeybees can only sting once, as the act of stinging causes them to die. The only exception is the queen, who can sting to her heart’s content, but she doesn’t leave the hive unless to mate or swarm. But all those guard bees and foraging bees that rise up in a tiny cloud of banana-scented alarm pheromone as we jostle their frames and scrape propolis from their walls? Those defenders of the nest that send stingers through face nets and socks will die. So it goes in the life of a beekeeper and her bees – one part love and devotion, one part death and robbery. Now that I think about it, chicken-keeping, goat-keeping, duck-keeping and pig-keeping share some of those same characteristics. You’ll have to get back to me about fruit and vegetable gardening, as I still haven’t wrapped my mind around the death of a lettuce. I’m not ruling anything out.

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