Saturday, March 3, 2012

All Time Bee Time in the Hive

*Illustration by Fredy Santiago

     A hobby beekeeper is a bit lonely during the winter.  He sometimes sulks and worries about his bees, and he wakes up shivering on a blustery night fearing that his bees will freeze to death when the temperature dips below 32 F.  He routinely visits his hive every day, although there is nothing to see because bees don't fly when it's cold.  He asks his chickens, who live alongside the hive, if they know anything.  They do not.  They only want grapes.  
     Sometimes the beekeeper gently taps on the side of his hive and shyly inquires, "Hello?"  But he is only disappointed by the lack of response, and he wistfully remembers the good times: last summer, when his bees never failed to greet him.
     So what exactly do domesticated honeybees do to pass the time during the cold season?  Play checkers?  Tell ghost stories? Take up knitting?
     A for-profit beekeeper tends hundreds or even thousands of hives and ships them someplace warm during the winter, such as Florida, where he leases his bees to citrus and nut farmers for crop pollination.  (Sadly, it's not in a bees' contract to receive paid vacations, so there will be no side trips to Disneyworld to see famous animatronic bees reading the Gettysburg Address.)
     However, a picayune apiarist has no need to truck a single hive down south, so he is hanging tough with what's left of his hive after the Great Swarm of 2011. 
     Honeybees stay warm in winter by clustering together in the middle of the hive at the top of the comb, contracting their chest muscles (they have no Pilates instructors in the colony) which keeps the center of the cluster at a constant 93 F. 
     Inside the cluster the workers all point their heads facing inward. The queen of course luxuriates at the balmy nucleus of this big bee snuggle, pampered by her devoted workers.  If she needs an extra pair of socks or someone to bring her a mug of honey, she gets it.  The workers continuously rotate their location within the cluster--those in the middle eventually move to the sidelines and vice versa.  The division of labor is surprisingly democratic.

 My Insulated Hive
     When outside temperatures are above freezing, bees can comfortably move about inside the hive.  Below freezing, the bees are immobile, with nothing to do except stare at each other's butts.  In fact they cannot even walk two inches to eat honey.  The longer and colder a winter is, the more a colony is at risk for starvation, especially if they did not have a good supply of pollen and nectar to forage from the previous spring and summer, or if the size of the colony is small.  
     Any amount of additional insulation helps the hive retain heat, thus boosting the colony's survival rate.  In a warmer hive the bees will shiver less and can conveniently access honey reserves without risk of freezing to death. 
     Apis mellifera are meticulously domestic. They don't poop indoors they and they prefer not to have corpses piling up on the living room floor. On a mild windless day, dead bees are dragged to the landing board and then dumped overboard.  This behavior indicates that the colony is alive and organized around their queen.

Bring Out Your Dead
     If all goes well and the bees survives until daytime temperatures are consistently over 50 F., the queen begins laying eggs.  Lucky surviving workers will by now have reached an uncommonly ripe old age of nearly six months (during the busy season a worker may live only 60 days) and without complaint these old ladies begins to raise brood and nurse them to adulthood. This will be the beginning of the success of the colony for another summer.  Only then will the anxious beekeeper breathe a sigh of relief.

A Worker Laid to Rest

*A special thanks to the very talented artist Fredy Santiago for creating the queen bee illustration specially for this post.  I love Fredy's drawings for their clever humor and incredible use of line and color. He is for hire!  Be sure to check out Fredy's ultra cool

Shane VanOosterhout is The Passionate Gardener.  
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1 comment:

Delinda said...

I loved learning about the bees. I am currently writing on the Cancer Survivors Garden aka the neglected garden.