Life is full of times that test our hearts. Nothing hurts a beekeeper’s heart more than to crack open the outer cover of a beehive and hear nothing. I stood there for a long time listening. There was the winter wind through the birches, the far off caw of a crow perched in the maples – but no hum of irritated bees. I opened the inner cover and saw no movement. Dead bees littered the frame tops. I put the covers back on, put the rocks on top – like stones on a grave – and walked slowly back down the hill.
It was the Hamsa hive – the one I thought to be the strongest with the most stores – the one I thought would most likely survive the winter. Winter is always a precarious time, especially for a new hive but what had gone wrong?
Bees do not hibernate – they remain active all winter eating honey to keep warm. In the fall the hive population drops as the summer bees die off and are replaced by “winter” bees. Winter bees are physiologically different than the summer bee and will live much longer (4 – 6 months vs. 1.5 months) and their purpose is to keep the hive alive till spring. The bees remain active when the temperature is above about 50° but when it gets colder, they form a cluster. They shiver their flight muscles to generate heat and warm the cluster. The bees will rotate from the outside to the inside of the cluster as they tire and cool. The outside edge of the cluster must be touching the honey stores so that they can pass food through the cluster. The cluster can move to reach new areas of honey but if it gets too cold, they will not move and can die from starvation even though there is enough honey available.
The weather had been fairly warm through December and they had honey stores as well as fondant (bee candy) that I had supplied. There were no signs of starvation. I was mystified so I called my bee mentor Ralph to come do a postmortem. Unfortunately we could not really determine what happened. It could have been a failed queen, not enough winter bees to form a cluster, mite load … we just don’t know. We emptied the bees from the hive and closed up the openings to prevent marauders like mice from damaging the comb. In the spring, I will get a new package of bees and start again.
The Horus hive is still going. Even with the extreme colds we had in January – into the single digits – they are hanging on. I do what I can, keep a watchful eye and listen.