by Kim Rivera,
Backyard Bees of Bend
October is, as far as local honeybees are concerned, the start of winter. November is the first month of solid seclusion in survival mode for the colony.
Specially nourished bees — called winter bees — are in force, maintaining the colony’s warmth. These specialized bees create a heater effect by using wing and abdominal muscles to generate warmth. Bees cluster in the wintertime and stay in a state of torpidity, not full hibernation. By slowly rotating the outer layer of cold worker bees inward, the warmer ‘inside’ bees take their turn on the frigid exterior of the cluster. Sometimes those outer bees ‘on the frontline’ get too cold to even move. At this point, their altruistic sister/worker bees often pull their cold sisters inwards towards the life-sustaining warmth — covering them over in the blanket of warm sister bees — until it is their turn once again to face the cold.
One way to picture it is what we know penguins do….the colony’s individuals take turns defending against the cold so that the whole may survive and come through alive. Bees cannot easily fly when temperatures are below 55 degrees. However, they do need to take ‘cleansing flights’, during the long winter months in which to vacate the accumulation of fecal matter that the consumption of honey produces. Fastidiously clean, bees will not sully their living space. When winter temperatures hit around 50 degrees or higher, you will see honeybees make attempts to take these cleansing flights out of the hive, vacate, then quickly attempt to make it back to the warmth of the hive. Some will not make it back. The majority, however, hopefully, will have enough honey and strength to make it through the minimal six months of grueling winter wet and cold. It certainly is a miracle that each little bundle of bees can come through the frigid, unrelenting elements of Central Oregon’s winters. The more you learn, the more incredible, indeed ‘impossible’, it is to fathom!
Honeybee winter clusters maintain an approximate central 90-degree temperature to keep their one and only queen safe until spring. This is when she will start to lay eggs again, up to 1,500 per day. If she perishes during the winter months or is damaged for any reason, the colony dies an awful death of which there is no saving. They protect her as the beating heart of their existence. Once the spring comes she, being the only fertile bee in the colony, will start the forward growth of the colony going full board. And why? To start once more, the desperate collection of honey for the next winter’s survival. Approximately 70 pounds is needed per colony for this feat of nature.
So, for now, my ‘little girls’ (I have 15 hives at this point), I wish you all a full and satisfying banquet of food and warmth as I tuck you in for winter. I will miss you while you ‘sleep’, and be anxiously wringing my hands as I watch your little houses blanketed in Central Oregon snow.
If you would like to purchase local honey or order yourself some bees you can contact Kim at firstname.lastname@example.org
photos courtesy of Backyard Bees of Bend