hunker in

There is nothing more thrilling for me than a wintertime trip to the bee yard. I generally pack my camera, a shovel, and a thermal mug of hot green tea. Once there, I literally sprint from the car through the deep snow to get to the hives. Then, like a little kid, I drop down on my knees in front of the snow-capped towers. The suspense of it gets to me every time. Are they going to be alive? I eagerly put my ear straight up against the hive entrance and listen for the tell-tale hum. Valerie’s hive, check. Queen Ruth Wilson, check. And my lovely Freeda? Three for three! That’s how it went today anyway.

Now I can relax and go back for my tea. I shovel out around the electric bear fence to keep the weight of the snow from stretching out the woven wire. I scrape the snow and ice from their front porches and clean up around the hives. And then I plop down and sit with my head up against a hive. It’s bitterly cold, but for once it doesn’t matter. There’s life in there! I can hear it! I look around at the frozen winter landscape and laugh.

On a mild winter day the girls will certainly be standing by at their entrance, surveying the day. If it’s nice enough they might even venture out for a little spin – or what is technically called a cleansing flight (they keep their quarters clean). But on a day like today when the mercury is struggling to get up to 0º F, they stay bundled in tight.

Bees don’t hibernate. Instead, they spend their winter shivering their flight muscles to stay warm and heat the hive. They band together and form a cluster in the center of the hive. The colder it gets, the tighter of a cluster they form around the queen. They maintain an internal cluster temperature of anywhere from 70 – 95º F. The bees sort of continually rotate through from the outer edge of the cluster into the center, accessing their stored food supplies as they go. How cool is that?

If that’s not impressive enough, get this. A winter bee is physiologically different from a summer bee. They have fatter bodies and a different blood protein profile than a standard summer bee. And they live considerably longer – 4 to 6 months versus the reckless 35 day lifespan of a summer gal. They are specifically designed to make sure the colony survives the winter. Somehow the cooler fall weather triggers the girls into rearing stockier, heartier winter bees. That blows my mind.

Any hive that is going to make it through the winter needs enough stored honey to see them through. But the danger an over wintering hive faces is if it gets too cold for too long, the bees won’t be able to shift in the cluster to access their food. So I always get a little nervous when the first arctic blast of the season hits. Last night the thermometer dropped to -11º F and more of the same is in store for tonight. But I’ve done all that I can. I down the last of my tea, give each hive a pat and tell my girls to hunker in just a little tighter.

1 Response to “hunker in”

  1. 1 Julie January 21, 2011 at 5:18 pm

    Incredible bees. Wish they could just sleep for a little while. Hibernating would be so much easier. Hunkered in over here, as well.

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