Bees in a Snowy Winter

Wow – what a difference a day (or two) makes. A few days ago my bees were flying, and I was even able to put together a video post for my patrons as I headed down to the apiary to check the entrances and inspection boards.

Bees cluster up together to keep warm in the winter, and it’s important that they aren’t disturbed at this time. Having a strong cluster; this isn’t just sheer numbers, but also fit healthy bees that can move around (they swap places to circulate the heat, like penguins on the ice floes) collect the stored honey from the cells above them, feed the queen and clean out the cells ready for her to lay. Dead bees need removing, and these autumn workers have to keep going with the necessary hive tasks until the new batch of sisters hatch as the pollen and nectar starts to flow, which has yet to happen here, although my bulbs are doing their best to look positive.

Here are my Warré bees in amongst the roses:

It was mild – about 9℃ – and this little colony seems to be doing ok. It was mainly cleansing flights by the looks: this is where the bees pop out to empty their systems, and have a sweep round to see what’s flowering. This can be a critical time, as they are at the end of their stores, and these long-lived workers at the end of their lives, yet they have to hang on until the new batch of workers becomes active.

I don’t feed my bees, not even a ‘top-up” of pollen substitute or fondant. This is because although this may keep the bees alive, it won’t make them any more viable as a colony. That may seem a bit counter-intuitive, but surviving winter is a complex set of circumstances, of which having sufficient food is only one part. There have to be enough healthy bees to form a cluster and work efficiently in low temperatures and on reduced rations. They have to be knowledgeable of their surroundings so that they can find the very first precious drops of nectar (which, a bit like colostrum) will be the precise formulation necessary for those initial tasks – it’s not simply calories, unlike sugar syrup. A rich variety of pollen needs to be gathered in autumn and correctly fermented so that it can nourish the new larvae, as they have to take over from their weary and spent nestmates and prepare the hive for the turbulence of spring. Bees have evolved with the trees and flowers that emerge at these times, hence the synchronicity of need and availability, and allowing the selective pressures to produce resilient, adaptive colonies that understand the landscape and have the physiology to couple correctly with their environment is vital if we are going to have bees that can cope with the challenges we – and they – face.

So far, I think two of my colonies have perished. I suspect one was a late-autumn loss, and the other succumbed to what is presumably now a very fat mouse. The other six still have a way to go, but the catkins and crocus are poised and ready so I am hopeful once this cold snowy weather passes over, they will be out foraging. I am looking forward to it.

2 Replies to “Bees in a Snowy Winter”

  1. I hope your bees come back stronger than ever in the spring! And that the flowers don’t come out too early or too late.
    Do you notice a big difference in flavor between honey at different times of the year?

    1. Thanks for your comment 🙂 yes, the honey varies a lot across the year, which is why it’s nice to take a little every now and then as you get the difference in flavour, and you know you’ll always be leaving enough for the bees 🙂

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