Well, what a month! Whilst we (locally) managed to escape the worst consequences of the cold weather, with very little snow (and temperatures that were positively tropical compared with parts of the UK), we did our fair share of slipping and sliding around the roads when we had to venture outside. The bees, on the other hand, didn’t even think about flying out of their hives! Had they done so, they would have rapidly chilled and would have fallen to the ground and died, as once their body temperature drops below 7˚C they will perish.
To maintain such a temperature demands rapid movement of the dorsal muscles and wing vibrating, but if this isn’t enough, they’ve had it! So they sensibly stay huddled very tightly together to maintain a temperature of anything from 20˚C if there is no brood present to 35˚C if there is brood present. Whilst clustered like this, the bees consume very little food, but will live off their body fats built up during the late autumn. This means they can survive for anything up to six months during the winter months, whereas the normal summer life-span of a bee is nearer six weeks!
Such a long period of time inside the hive, however, does require the consumption of some hive stores, which is why it is important that the beekeeper ensures there are sufficient to last the whole winter when s/he is preparing the bees during the autumn. Unfortunately, however well-prepared the hives might be in terms of stored food, when the bees cluster in and around a group of empty cells, those of them on the periphery will have access to food but unless the cluster physically moves en bloc, those in the centre will not. Then when the weather warms up (as it has done over the past week), the cluster will loosen or even break up altogether and move towards an unopened food source (sealed honey in the comb). If you think about the bees clustering, say, one third of the way into the hive, there will be a third of the frames to one side of the cluster and two thirds of the frames to the other. Should the cluster move towards the one third, there is sometimes a danger that they will gradually move across those frames and reach a point where there are either no frames left or no food in those on the extremities of the hive. The bees then find themselves isolated from their food source (though there are still plenty of stores on the other side of the hive) and they will die, because, once in cluster they are unable to move across the frames, other than very slowly, to reach those stores.
This is the main reason that every winter, round about now, I give the bees a Christmas present of candy or fondant, which is basically sugar that has been dissolved in water to a very high concentration – it looks like royal icing that you find on an iced cake. By placing this candy/fondant over the cluster, the bees then have access to food without having to move across the frames. It’s a kind of “fail-safe”. Apart from that, there is nothing more that can be done to help the bees – but they have been looking after themselves without our “help” for 20 million years, so they should have a reasonable idea of what is needed! Once things start warming up, the beekeeper’s involvement once again will increase but until then, we can only wait and see.
Colin Rees firstname.lastname@example.org