A Hard Winter

February has been over 10F colder than usual this year, with many nights well below zero. January wasn’t much better; I haven’t been tracking it, but the number of “snow” days and “chill” days (when wind chill and temp were under -20) and, therefore, no school, has been huge. It seems like at least once a week we’re home–including today, when it is barely snowing, and not particularly cold.

All this weather may be hard on parents who have to shuffle schedules to accommodate kids who are not in school, but it isn’t particularly hard on the honey bees, provided they have enough stores. Like most (good) beekeepers in my area, I make sure my bees have 60-80 lbs of honey stored up in fall for their winter needs. There are beekeepers out there who will take every drop of honey and feed (the cheaper) sugar of high fructose corn syrup–but I am not among them. For one thing, it’s more work than I’m willing or able to do. For another, while some think that sugar or HFCS is actually better winter feed for the bees, because of its lack of ash content, I’m not convinced. Yes, solids accumulate in the bees’ winter gut (they don’t go outside unless the temps are over 50F or so and they don’t, unless very ill, defecate in the hive). Still, they evolved to handle this under most circumstances, and we generally have a warm weather break in January and February to let the bees have “cleansing flights,” as they’re called.

Hives in WinterDuring these flights, the bees will defecate, releasing a yellow fluid, and then return to the hive. Not all will return, however. It isn’t clear why some stay and die in the cold. Did those workers just get chilled, and their flight muscles stop working? Or were they ill, or otherwise at the end of their lives, and too the opportunity to die outside the hive, thereby keeping disease and rot away from their home and sisters?

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