A winter’s tale

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There is a bee legend handed down from bee generation to bee generation about the great sparkle.

“Ooh the great sparkle,” say the bees as they see the twinkling stars and the early evening frost. “Get inside quickly before the instant freezing grips you in its icy hold.” Then they all settle down in their nice warm hives to listen to the tales about Jack Frost.

It is a fable, of course. Frost fell on the farm in Hereford last weekend. I imagined the bees peering out at the frozen earth.

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Yesterday was another beautiful winter’s day when Emily and I met for lunch in Ealing, back home in London. A mushroom risotto warmed us before getting the bus to Perivale. The clear blue sky was tinged orange in the late afternoon sun.

Emily’s marmalade cake caused a stir among the beekeepers who had gathered for tea. “Your bees have been flying like hell,” said Stan, as I cut a slice of cake.

Another bee legend at Ealing apiary, Alan, gave Emily and I tips on insulating the hives with the foil bubble wrap. Here he is showing Emily how to cut squares around a queen excluder to fit into the roof.

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Alan then helped us to fit the foil bubble wrap inside the roof of each hive. The colony will do a good job of keeping themselves warm in winter, but the foil will help to reflect the heat back into the hive. Hopefully, the bees will feel even more cosy.

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Bees tucked in for winter, I got a surprise when lifting the roof off an empty hive to put away some equipment. A sleeping wasp with her wings folded neatly by her legs. A bit further along the wood was a desiccated spider and a ladybird who may have died in suspicious circumstances… What dark fairy tale had unfolded?

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I gently placed the roof back on the hive trying not disturb the sleeping beauty. She looks small for a wasp queen, perhaps a worker who had abandoned her dying nest? In any case, few hibernating wasp queens survive the winter, either succumbing to the cold or spiders, she’ll have as good a chance as anyone else.

The hives had become still as Emily and I got out the chicken wire to make a start on wrapping the bees for Christmas. The dusk was chasing away the day.

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… As usual, and as happened every year, there were those bees who didn’t heed their sisters’ warnings. They were caught by Jack Frost’s creeping, sometimes sudden, appearance. The late returning foragers caught frostbite on their wings, or even worse turned into instant bee statues on a flower. Those who returned home too late could only be saved if they happened to land on the hive roof, so that their beekeepers could breathe on them warm air and thaw their frosted wings. These lucky bees were the ones who told the tales that were handed down.

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It is a story, of course, as we left the quiet hives behind us to keep their winter secrets.

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16 thoughts on “A winter’s tale

  1. I remember that when I first started beekeeping (I was 11) I used to collect the honey bees who were too cold to fly and put them at the entrance. By the time I had got them to the hive my hands would have warmed them up enough for them to crawl inside. I wonder what tales those bees told^^

    Ok, who am I kidding; I still do that….

  2. I like the idea of fitting the hives with roof insulation. Do you know why small beekeepers do not seem to use the WBC hives now? The idea of the double walls seems a very good idea in theory to me and if you only have one or two hives as a hobby not too much extra work. They look pretty so I feel I must be missing something. I would love to know what you think. Amelia

    • They do look pretty. What I’ve read from Dave Cushman and others about WBC, that the double wall cavity in older models was bigger and used to be stuffed with straw. Newer models the cavity is smaller and may not be filled with insulation. Those who used them have not found a noticeable difference in warmth, although there might be a risk of condensation within the wall cavity. I have never kept WBC only because, like most beekeepeers at the apiary, we all use the same hives which is helpful for understanding what everyone else is doing and for loaning spare (clean) parts. One year I’d like to buy Thornes gabled roofs for our national hives though, to give them a pretty WBC look!

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