Something So Small
It's been a strange winter here on the farm. Temperatures have soared to 70 and fallen into the teens, so the grass doesn't know if it should grow or retreat! The upside of the warmer days is that we're using less hay and the bees have been able to clean house.
Bees do not hibernate. Like penguins, they spend all winter in a huddle mass, constantly moving to keep the hive at a steady 56 degrees. Again like penguins, they rotate so no bee has to stay on the cold fringe or gets roasty toasty in the center. While pine and fir trees do produce some pollen, temperatures rarely afford bees the opportunity to collect and process it. They survive on their summer food stores, and when those run out...they starve. It's common to lose lots of bees in late winter (February) because it's too cold to open the hive and check on them and the food starts to run out. Bees continue working all winter long, plugging gaps in the hive to keep the chill at bay, seeing to the queen's needs, rearing young, and dying. Worker bees only live about 2-3 months (although in some instances they can reverse the aging process by taking on a different job), so the spring bees are a new generation from the winter ones.
I was able to open the hives about a week ago to feed them candy - a mixture of corn syrup and granulated sugar cooked until clear, poured into a mold, and placed on top of the frames. When it's cold, the bees can chew it up. On warm days, should the candy begin to melt, it will drip toward the center of the hive where bees spend the winter, making it more accessible on cold days. There is no water in bee candy; too much condensation on a warm day could drown the bees.
There was no sign of life in the Red Hive, though I didn't lift any frames or spend longer than I needed to. The White Hive had a dead bee on the doorstep, but when I opened the cover a guard came out to check on me. Hooray! Bees!
Why was there a dead bee? As I mentioned, bees aren't able to go outside when temperatures are low. They are extremely fastidious and generally keep a 75ft perimeter around the hives - no droppings, no dead bees. All their funk builds up over the winter, so any warm day is a chance to clean house!
Though bees enjoy the unexpected warmth as much as we do, it often lands them in trouble. As temperatures fall in the afternoon, or fail to rise in the shade, bees get chilled and are unable to fly home. You may find them on the ground, on your deck railing, or even (as was the case at my house) on your front door. The good news is, with a little help from you they can survive just fine! Scoop them up and take them inside (make sure your container isn't airtight!) They don't need anything to climb on, although it's not a bad idea to put a kleenex or something in there with them. Bees are used to crawling through networks of comb. Give them a little honey - a little goes a long way! - and leave them alone for the night. Your houseguest will become agitated after she warms up and has a full belly. After all, she's supposed to be home! Bees are social creatures, they live in hives up to 60,000 strong, so don't be surprised if she's lonely and a bit anxious. Leave her someplace quiet and dark. The next day, well after sunrise, take her outside and let her go. She might take a few orientation laps around you - don't swat at her!! - and then she'll zip home to relate her adventure!
I have always believed that any creature will show you gratitude within their ability to overcome instinct, and animals continue to convince me this is so. The 4ft cottonmouth we saved from strangulation did not strike, nor did the juvenile coppermouth we released. The bee did not sting, dogs have not bitten...maybe I just have a way with things. Give it a shot; I promise you'll be rewarded. Small things make a big difference.