Weather predictions for the coming week are dire — another polar vortex if the forecasts are correct. The bees are out of food made by me and have been for some time. I never got to put the last bit of syrup into the hives in late fall before the average daily temperature dropped too close to freezing. And that cold has also meant that I could not add the fondant I made at Thanksgiving either. Fifty degrees F is the coldest it can be to open a hive.
When the temperature reached 52 degrees this afternoon, I ignored the breeze and fog and took the covers off the hives, one at a time of course. Both are still alive. I could walk on water when I discover the hives are alive I am so elated.
Fast as I could, I inserted an Imrie shim (explained below if you’re interested) to allow space for the fondant above the frames in the first hive, the weaker one. The operation was seamless. I even managed to put a layer of straw above the inner cover to serve as a sponge for excess moisture and maybe some warmth. The second hive was a different story. I had to bump it a bit to free up the inner cover. That disturbed the bees enough that some decided to take flight. “Bad idea girls,” I said. Maybe a dozen bees did not listen, and they were outside the hive as I put to cover back on. No time for the addition of straw in that hive, but I did add the shim and fondant.
Winter bees are different from summer bees. For one thing, they live longer. They are born in the fall and survive, when lucky, all winter. Their summer sisters only live about 6 weeks. Winter bees are also fatter than summer bees becasue they do not forage for food. All bees are cold-blooded but, unlike other insects, they stay active all winter. The job of the winter bees is to keep the queen warm and fed. They form a cluster around the queen and beat their flight muscles or shiver really, to keep her warm. Like migrating birds, the shivering bees rotate from the center of the cluster to its outer edges to share the burden of producing warmth. The cluster expands and contracts in size depending on the outside temperature. If its warm enough outside, the bees will roam around inside the hive. The winter bees also relay honey from hive stores to the queen so when I place the fondant in the hive, it has to be on the top of the frames and as close to the cluster as possible. Winter bees can starve even if they have honey and fondant if its too far away for them to get at it.
Half an hour later, I went out to check on the bees that flew. I hope some might have gone back in the hive. Winter bees can fly but that’s really their calling. They will leave the hive when the outside temperature reaches the high 50s to take what are politely called “cleansing flights.” Bees, both summer and winter, don’t poop in the hive. But the day was not warm enough for a cleansing flight. A handful of those escaped bees were expiring by the hive’s front door. (See the photo.) I picked them up by the wings or with the help of a twig and dropped them under the cover. Maybe they’ll survive and maybe I just added to the detritus the girls will have to attend to later. So much for trying to keep the hive tidy! I’m quite sure they always scratch their heads over the difference between what they need and what I provide.
I did not see mites or mite damage on that unlucky sample of bees that fly from the second hive. The insides of both hives were dry. I beefed up their food supply. That’s all to the good. But we’re now in the season in which decimation by disease, starvation or too much relentless cold and moisture is at least as likely as survival. Only time will tell whether I get to feel like walking on water at the next inspection.
A new batch of fondant is in the frig ready to confuse guests looking for human food. But I’m also prepared for opening the hives on another 50 degree day come February or early March.
Wondering what an Imrie shim might be? George Imrie was my instructor in bee school for the small amount of formal training that I had in beekeeping. He was an Eastern Apicultural Society Master Beekeeper — that means accreditation by one of the best institutions in beekeeping. He was also very forthright with his opinions. He would scream at us to be bee keepers not bee havers. As I misuse the Imrie shim as a spacer for fondant — it is supposed to go below drawn frames only — I can hear him shouting from his grave: “she’ll never be anything but a bee haver.”