by Brad Volin
Bee Happy you have a furnace and heat in your house! Unfortunately the bees don’t. So they have to keep themselves warm all winter. In fact, Queen Bee needs to stay at a balmy 92 degrees. How do they do they warm themselves? Actually, the same as you and I: by shivering! That’s right, there are literally 10,000+ bees in each hive, and they climb on top of each other and surround the queen on all sides and use body heat to keep her warm. But don’t the flapping wings cause problems? In fact they would, so bees have evolved in an ingenious manner such that they can detach their wings and activate their muscles to generate heat without actually moving their wings. Thus they can stay very close together and generate heat while in a ‘cluster’ to keep her majesty warm and alive all winter.
One can imagine how hungry they must get exercising so much, and yes, they must eat. Throughout the winter, the cluster moves around and the bees take turns eating the stored honey. The amount of honey consumed varies in different parts of the country and generally tracks with how cold it gets. Here in Denver, hives generally need around 60 pounds of honey to survive the winter. You may notice that each of our hives is made up of two stacked boxes (each box is called a ‘deep’). Typically, if both deeps are full of capped honey (the bees fill cells in the honeycomb with honey and then cover it with wax for storage) by fall, the hives have enough honey. If the bees have filled both deeps during the summer, additional boxes (this time called ‘supers’) are added, and the honey in these supers are ‘excess’ honey that the bees don’t need. This is honey that can be harvested by the beekeeper. The only difference between a ‘deep’ and a ‘super’ is that the supers are not as tall. That way when they are full of honey they are not as heavy to move. Our hives didn’t produce any excess honey this year but we are hoping they do next year!
If the deeps are full of capped honey, not only does it provide nutrients and food for the shivering bees all winter, but it also helps insulate the bees from the outside cold. If the deeps are not full of honey, there is less insulation, as well as less food. You may notice the two hives we have on the east side of our orchard (we call them hives 2 & 3), have pink foam insulation around them. These hives were not full of honey so the foam will help insulate the bees. We may even need to supplement the hives with sugar water later in the winter or spring since they don’t have quite enough honey to last through the entire winter. On the other hand, the two hives on the west side (we call them hives 4 & 5) are not wrapped in foam. These hives are full of honey and that is enough to insulate them, and keep them well fed for the duration of the winter. The hives do have duct tape on the seams to help keep the wind out. Again, a big thanks to Devin Egger and Bee Mindful, for donating these two hives.
Lastly, the single hive that had been by the tree (we called it hive 1) has been brought into the shed because the bees left back in August. There are many reasons why bees leave – our best guess is that because this hive survived from the prior year, the queen was older and did not produce quite enough brood (bees) during this summer and eventually the queen and subsequently the entire hive unfortunately died.
Winter is often the toughest time for bees and many do not survive. We are hoping all 4 of our hives survive and winter over. That may allow us to add additional hives next Spring by splitting, and/or it may allow us to get enough honey so that there is excess and all of us gardeners can have some – yum!
Thanks to everyone that helped with the bees this year. A lot of people were involved and we had fun together and all learned a lot. We are looking to have more people involved in the coming year. The only thing you need is a curiosity or fascination for bees. We plan to have get-togethers in the garden every month. Some will involve the hives themselves and some will involve other things. So you can bee involved even if you don’t want to get close to any bees. We’ll have fun and learn together. Email email@example.com if you are even possibly interested, even if only for a one time event. We don’t need any major commitment.
Have a warm winter, don’t be afraid to walk over near the hives and see if any bees are buzzing. For most of the winter, the hives will look silent and you may think there is not possibly anything alive inside. But on a sunny warm winter day, you’ll likely see some buzzing (they have to go out to poo periodically!).
See you in the Spring! – BeeRAD