Bees Flying in Winter

The sun came out yesterday, and the bees went nuts. They hurried out of the hives and clouded the air. I walked right into their territory to pick some kale (bottom right) for lunch, and in just a few moments, I had bees in crawling in my hair, on my clothes, and on my camera. Though I’m not the beekeeper in the family, I’m getting used to having bees up in my business, and I can generally just carry on with what I want to do.

When it’s cold out, an entire bee colony will come together in a cluster around the queen for the purpose of conserving heat. While clustered, they only have access to the honey in the immediate vicinity of the group, so even sugar stores further away inside the hive won’t do them any good unless they can break cluster.

If it’s warm enough for bees to get out of their hives at this time of year, there is pollen to be had. Red alder, chickweed, and hazelbrush/filberts are all blooming right now within foraging distance of our hives. Being able to bring these reserves home means Henry’s bees will need little or no sugar/protein supplementary feedings, and they can get a batch of brood going sooner rather than later.

Honeybees will break cluster at warmer temperatures (low 40s to 55° depending on the type of bees), and then they can move around within the hive, or they can get out of the hive for a while. Henry prefers and is breeding for bees that will break cluster at lower temperatures because they will not only be able to forage earlier in the season, giving them a headstart on resource storage and brood rearing, but they also will have more opportunities to poop outside the hive instead of inside, which can prevent or lessen the prevalence of nosema (a unicellular parasite that acts like honeybee cholera). While monitoring bee pooping habits may seem a little obscure and gross, it’s pretty important. Once bees get nosema, they can’t hold their poo for very long, increasing the likelihood that they’ll relieve themselves inside the hive, which in turn increases the likelihood that affected bees will spread the disease to others in the colony. Unfortunately, in the photo below, you can see the yellow evidence of a hive affected by nosema.

Thankfully, after sunny days like today, we’ll find splatters of bee poo all over our car windshields and around the homestead, letting us know they had a good pooping day.

You may have noticed in the two photos above that Henry has restricted access to the hive down to a very small opening, even smaller than the standard crack at the bottom of a bee box. He did this because he has at least one colony of very aggressive bees that would much rather steal honey than make their own, and some of the other colonies have suffered significant losses as a result. The small entrance/exit space allows the guard bees to do a better job of keeping robbers out, though it can cause something of a traffic jam at the door.

Another sunny-day activity for bees is the pitching of the dead. It’s inevitable that some bees will die over the course of the winter, and the deceased just hang around breeding disease while the bees are clustered. As soon as they can get out and about, workers will haul dead bees out of the hive and pitch them off the landing board. In the photo above, you can see quite a big pile of dead bees (mixed up with straw) right outside the hive. This is one of the hives that’s is affected by nosema, so many in the colony are weak and dehydrated, and some have died as a result.

Henry has lost two hives so far this winter. At this point, the outlook seems pretty good especially considering the fact that he only applied late-summer treatments to suppress varroa mites on four colonies. We’ll have to wait and see what kinds of conditions the bees will face in the coming months before we get a final tally of losses.