Winter is here and, as every beekeeper knows, you will get asked at least once a week ‘What do bees do in winter?’. People are surprised when you say that bees don’t hibernate in winter and they are fascinated to hear how the workers cluster into a small, tight ball around the queen, vibrating their flight muscles to maintain a core temperature of around 21–24°C inside the hive. The winter bees eat the honey stores made by their summer sisters, because generating that much heat requires energy. ‘During the winter a colony will use an average of about 1kg per week just for heat production. (So do not skimp on feeding!)’ says Celia F Davis, The Honey Bee Inside Out. On a clear, mild day, the workers venture outside to stretch their wings or on a ‘cleansing flight’ (bees don’t like to poo indoors).
Honeybee colonies are much smaller in winter – on average, around 10–15,000 workers and the queen – so there are fewer bees to keep, but still beekeeping to do. Insulating roofs to conserve heat energy, checking mouseguards are secure and entrances clear, wrapping hives in chicken wire to deter peckish woodpeckers, and hefting the weight of stores. Beekeepers can then look forward to the tradition of giving bees a gift of fondant on Christmas Day, although many of us leave the fondant under the roof much earlier.
Sadly, people rarely ask what do beekeepers do in winter, who keeps the apiary warm or who maintains vital stores of tea and cake? Luckily, at Ealing apiary there is a hard core of beekeepers who turn up every Saturday afternoon to keep each other. And while we can’t vibrate our flight muscles like bees to maintain a tropical 24°C, the urn is boiled, tea is poured and cakes served warm from the oven. I arrived at the apiary yesterday to find a small crowd chatting over cups of tea, two varieties of cake and curious about my offering of a packet of jaffa cakes.
As regular readers know, there is a show-and-tell each week at our apiary. John Chapple was showing a photo of a strange numerical construct built on to the front of a house ‘for the bees’. I never got to the bottom of what it was. Thomas had brought a pretty collection of beeswax balms made by a lady beekeeper at Walpole Friends apiary, which the Ealing (men) beekeepers thought were good for buying, sticking on a gift label and saying ‘here, have this’ at Christmas.
Beekeepers are great hobbyists and have many hobbies to keep them occupied in winter. One of those hobbies is talking to other beekeepers about their bees. I had a fun chat with Andy, a beekeeper who admitted that Emily and I are not the only Ealing beekeepers who name our queens. While Emily and I use a naming convention of essential oils, Andy names his queens for famous female scientists. So far his queens have included Rosalind (Rosalind Franklin, British biophysicist and X-ray crystallographer), Jocelyn (Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Northern Irish astrophysicist) and Valentina (Valentina Tereshkova, Russian cosmonaut and engineer). Valentina swarmed with her colony which, said Andy, taught him not to name future queens after astronauts or aviators, ‘There will never be an Amelia’.
The apiary’s core temperature of around 8–10°C doesn’t allow sitting for long, so we joined Andy Pedley and the other beekeepers stretching their legs around the hives. Albert noticed a few dead bees were blocking the entrance to Chamomile’s hive and Thomas thought the bodies might be trapped by the way our mouseguard was placed over the entrance reducer. ‘I noticed lots of hives here have entrance reducers and mouseguards on, but this might make it too difficult for bees to get in and out,’ he said. Thomas and Albert helped me to reposition the mouseguard and remove dead bodies. As soon as the entrance was clear a worker bee flew out impatient to get past and buzzing loudly. Perhaps she had been waiting for a cleansing flight for a long time.
There was not a sight of a bee outside Myrtle’s and Chili’s hives and I hoped our queens were well inside. I shouldn’t have favourites but I am fond of Myrtle, who was named for my favourite essential oil and, like her namesake, is a gentle and kind queen. Here she is walking elegantly across a frame this summer.
Satisfied the bees were well being kept, the beekeepers drifted out of the apiary and all was quiet and still again. The day was getting darker and colder, so I was grateful when Stan offered a lift home to Northolt.
Today is the 1st of December and John and I are putting up the Christmas decorations. I will, of course, save some tinsel for the bees.
Hivernation – a useful read on what the bees get up to in winter, by blogger Apis.
Understanding bee anatomy – Thomas found a fantastic blog by a doctor and Master beekeeper, very useful for winter bee studies.