Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

January 13, 2013

Honeybee Hide-a-way

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 3:43 pm

I have rarely been stung by honeybees over the course of my life so I can remember the circumstances of each incident. The first was when I undertook an ill-fated adventure to collect some bees in my front yard. I decided to pick them off the clovers with my fat little fingers and throw them into my red little wagon. Needless to say, one of my fingers got even fatter (and redder) when I was stung and the affair quickly ended in tears. I was well under 5 years old at the time, so let’s not be too critical.

The second time was in mid-winter.  The frozen ground allowed the Willow Metropark Golf course crew to get access to a decrepit old tree that needed to be cut down. Once felled, the large trunk cavity broke open to reveal a large colony of wild honeybees. Like so many Poo Bears, we started to collect the golden honey-laden combs. The bees were alive, but they were moving so slowly that they were easily brushed off. One bee did find its way into the space between my neck and coat collar, however, and zinged me.  Many of them started flying about in short order and we beat a hasty retreat in our big red wagon.

I was around 22-23 years old at the time of that second sting story and probably should have been more careful, but one can be excused for assuming that February bees would take a very long time to warm up. The truth, as I learned then and now know, is that wintering bees are not like other wintering insects. In other words, they are “on” all the time.

Honeybees do not hibernate. They huddle, cluster, shiver, and eat their way through the cold season but never enter a state anywhere near sleep (or diapause as insect hibernation is called). As long as the security of their hive and their food supply holds out, a colony of bees will successfully survive into spring. Any beekeeper worth his honey will tell you this.  They also will tell you how much they worry about the winter success of their domestic bees.

I am not a beekeeper, per se, but my attention is being kept by a wild bee colony which took up residence in one of my backyard maples late last summer (see above views).  Utilizing a cavity which had previously been used by a pair demonic Red Squirrels, the …or shall we call them “my” – colony immediately set about retro-fitting the place and putting  up honey stores. One of the most obvious tasks was limiting the size of the entrance hole by filling in with a varnish-like substance called propolis, aka “bee glue.” Consider this a type of Bondo for bees.

Based on the winter view of that hive, it looks like the colony performed the mechanical part of their task with collective skill. The shiny propolis lining the entrance is easily visible (see below). There is no good way for me to ascertain if the group put away a sufficient stock of honey, however.  Now that the hard part of winter is upon us, I am feeling some ownership (worry) over the success of this hive.

It is best to think about a winter bee colony as a super-organism which functions as one body. In fact, it’s not too silly to say that they act downright mammalian (they bee mammals?). The colony maintains a consistent core temperature of around 80 degrees or so. They cluster together into a tight huddle, with the queen positioned at the center, and shiver. This muscular action generates a tremendous amount of heat. Individual bees will rotate from the center to the outside in order to distribute the love.  Even the outside of the cluster will be well above freezing. Thermograph images of a winter honey bee clusters clearly show the temperature gradient running from close to 90 degrees F to 40 degree F. while the ambient air temperature is well below freezing.

It takes about 30-50 pounds of honey In order to keep this kind of group hug going all winter long. It is worth noting that the winter bees are of stouter stock than the summer bees – they are fatter, larger and longer lived. These beefy bees are constantly consuming their honey and pollen stores in order to keep their energy levels up.  I can have no way of knowing if “my” bees have enough supply to make it, but they did recently show me that they were still a viable colony…at least so far.

Perhaps you hadn’t thought about it before, but with all that shaking and eating going on the bees will eventually have to take a pee (as in B P P).  On days when the temperature climb above freezing, individual bees will take a brief outside flight in order to relieve themselves. The flight is short but effective. Some of the weaker insects do not make it back and these remain still and cold on the snow crust.

There are occasionally a few dead bees scattered on the snow below the tree hole but these are quickly eaten by wandering flocks of Juncos, Cardinals, and various Sparrow species. Because I no longer have my little red wagon, I do not endeavor to collect these yard bees. The warmer days of this past week have provided extended potty breaks for members of the hive. When the afternoon temperatures soared to the upper 40’s the hive entrance was abuzz with winter bees seeking relief.


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