The Forest Garden honeybees have come through most of the winter. On the occasional mild day towards the end of February, a dozen or more from each of our two hives were out mapping and foraging for pollen to feed the year's first grubs. The queens have probably been laying since the end of January. When I uncover the window at the back of the older hive, an increasing number of workers every week come to the light. Now even with the cold weather returning in early March, a few workers hang around in the hive entrances, and fly as soon as ten minutes of sunshine offer them enough warmth. Inside the boxes, the numbers must be building up and with the first nectar flow, all being well, they'll be flying in numbers and stashing away their first nectar stores. They just have to get through the hungry gap till then.

Worker gathers hazel pollen in mid February to feed the first larvae

Most beekeepers I know spend a lot of the winter worrying and wondering. Your heart leaps up when the first sun brings a dozen workers out. Or you may have to accept that a colony hasn't come through. You compare notes with your friends, and congratulate or sympathise.

Not exactly hibernation

Honeybees don't hibernate. As autumn comes on, worker numbers start to drop from the summer peak of 40,000 or more. The male drones by now have been expelled or killed. The queen begins to lay a slightly different kind of worker, one designed to live a quiet life through the winter months. They have more tissue designed to store carbohydrate. On a person, I suppose, this would be adipose tissue: on a bee we call it the fat body. As the temperature drops, they cluster closely together on the empty brood combs from which the last of the season's bees have emerged. Those on the comb surface stick their heads into empty cells, so there is a practically solid mass of wax and bees. Those in the middle vibrate to keep the cluster warm: it's very like the shivering which you or I do, or any mammal, to keep our body temperature up in the cold. They take turns to be in the warm middle or at the cold outside surface of the cluster. And always in the warm middle is the queen.

Just above the cluster, all being well, is a store of high-octane fuel which will power their shivering until the warm sun and air return. Bees constantly pass food and secretions from mouth to mouth – it's one of the ways they talk to each other and maintain the colony identity. The workers at the top of the cluster uncap the cells and pass the honey around, and as store cells are emptied the whole cluster moves up the comb. By February they are down to maybe 2,000 winter workers, depending on the strain of honeybee.

So though the individual bee doesn't hibernate, you could say that the whole colony – the superorganism – does something analogous to mammal hibernation: it slows down and lives off its accumulated carbs.

Bumble bee queens, by the way, do genuinely hibernate. The occasional massive bumble you see at this time of year is an awakened queen who's aiming to feed herself up and then – having mated late last summer – to find a nest site and lay this year's colony of several hundred bees. If you have a garden, keep an untidy grassy area or a sunny slope for her.

Winter keeping: defence & stores

There are a couple of winter jobs for the beekeeper, depending on your style of beekeeping. Honeybees naturally live up in hollow trees. We keep them unnaturally close to the ground where it's easy for a mouse to creep in for winter warmth and food. So once the bees are quiet, we narrow the hive entrance down with a mouse guard. And out on Hackney Marsh there are spotted woodpeckers whose sharp ears may interpret the hive as a tree trunk full of scarce winter snacks. A wire cage will keep them away until their normal food sources crank up again in spring.

There's also the question of winter feeding. Last year's particular manifestation of climate change (rain and more rain) left a lot of hives light for the winter. Orthodox keeping dictates sugar syrup feeding in the autumn, to replace human-harvested honey. Then in winter – and in a cold spring like this year's – a light hive may be fed with a kind of sugar cake called fondant. There's a lot of talk about fondant recipes on the bee-e-groups at the moment.

At the Forest Garden we haven't fed with sugar since 2009. It helps that bees in a Warre hive need a third less winter stores than in a conventional hive: this is because the Warre is designed around the bees' natural thermal system. At last summer's end our established hive was up to five Warre boxes. Our new hive, a June swarm which had filled a box and a half, weighed in as possibly borderline for the winter. So we simply moved a box of stores from the strong hive onto the top of the new colony, giving them extra honey not sugar. If they don't need it, we'll harvest it this year. Easy – as Warre beek'ing so often is.

Every bee-blog I'll write, by the way, comes with a Little Learning warning. Practically every week I read or see something new about bees, and every so often I discover that some part of my mental picture of how honeybees live has to be overhauled. So, we'll see if this time next year I'm still saying the same thing.

Tim
Forest Garden Honeybee Page

The trail of faeces shows that this bee has winter dysentery. She's left the hive to die in the snow, removing the infection from the colony. The bees' own hygienic behaviour will deal with their normal pathogens just as our immune system does 

 

A short warm spell and the workers are negotiating the mouse guard and woodpecker cage. The guard is home made from a can.

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Comment by Tim Evans on March 20, 2013 at 9:58

Some of the struggling bumble bees you find in summer are dying from internal parasitism and the bee chooses not to return to the nest.

Interesting. Do they jump or are they pushed, or both? Expelling diseased bees, both larvae and adults, is an important part of h/bees' hygienic behaviour. It's known/thought that smell plays a part in their detecting disease in the colony. Like many insects they are micro-sensitive to significant molecules.

Beekeepers have long known that h/bees sense illness or anxiety in humans too. I've seen this: in a course group visiting hives, I saw bees paying attention (harmlessly) to one person. She was coming down with a cold and gave up & went home shortly afterwards. The first programnme of the current Radio 4 series 'Who's the Pest?' summarises explorations of how the bees do this through their sense of smell. Modern instrumentation bears out beekeeping 'folklore' and provides a mechanism for it.

Comment by Russell Miller on March 19, 2013 at 12:22

Great blog Tim. Full of interesting stuff, especially the going out to die and keep the hive clean bit.

I've read (June 1997 British Wildlife 8:5) that some parasitised bumble bees do something similar. Some of the struggling bumble bees you find in summer are dying from internal parasitism and the bee chooses not to return to the nest. This may be because colder temperatures outside the nest slow or even prevent development of the parasite. Cleaver bees.

I'll be uploading more wild photos to my bee album in preparation for Spring bee walks in April/May. As with you all information comes with a warning, still learning. That said we should be well on the way to a provisional Hackney species list by the end of the summer.

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