Bees and Beekeepers  in Winter


(This 712th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on November 21, 2004.)


Lewis Tandy is an amateur beekeeper who maintains two hives behind his home in Akron. I spent a pleasant afternoon talking with him about his avocation last week.


It is clear that Tandy enjoys a good relationship with his bees. "I get along better with them," he told me, "than with other people." That may be true but I found him pleasant and forthcoming.


What led to our conversation was another of those reader questions that I regularly receive each year in late autumn. Here is a recent one: "While walking through a neighbor's orchard I came across a beehive. Around it were strewn dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of dead bees. Is that a dying hive?"


I had a similar experience myself several years ago while hiking the Erie Canal towpath east of Lockport. An early November snow had fallen and near a group of hives the whitened path was speckled with dead bees. I picked up and examined many of them and found that they were all drones.


What is happening should come as a warning for us couch potatoes. The drone bees, whose sole role in life is to inseminate a queen bee, have served their purpose and, with cold weather coming on, their lazy ways and demands for food can no longer be tolerated. They are either driven out to die in the cold or, if they refuse to leave, are killed and carried out by their sisters who are rightly called worker bees.


Like us, the bees must prepare for the winter ahead and Tandy and I talked mainly about bees and beekeeping in winter.


Most of the upper hive bodies called "supers" where honey is stored were last removed in September, each hive usually giving up between 75 and 100 pounds of honey over the year. (The record for a single hive, Tandy told me, is over 300 pounds but professional beekeeper Sue Hubbell reports that in bad summers her Missouri hives can produce as little as 20 pounds.)


Tandy leaves a several supers for the bees to feed on through the cold weather when outside food sources are not available. Some beekeepers, he told me, take more honey but leave sugar water for the bees to feed on.


That last honey the bees gathered mostly from our common fall flowers, goldenrods and asters. I read that an early cold snap can crystallize aster nectar and injure the bees carrying it. Tandy's bees feed mostly on goldenrod and he prefers that.


To defend themselves against cold, the remaining bees gather into a sphere-like area inside the hive. Each bee contributes a small amount of heat to the cluster maintaining the center at 68 degrees. It is colder at the periphery of the sphere but these outside bees elbow their way toward the center after a short time. Thus the mass of about 50,000 bees is constantly rotating. At the same time, as the honey is consumed in one part of the hive the cluster slowly shifts to another.


Remarkably, in late January the bees will become more active, in this way heating up the interior of their cluster to 86 degrees, enough to allow their queen to begin laying eggs.


Bees are fastidious housekeepers, but this can cause a problem in winter. They will not defecate in the hive and need occasional warm periods like our January thaws to allow them to make what are called cleansing flights. This can often be a problem for anyone hanging clothes on an outside line. Their sheets would quickly become yellow-spotted. In severe and unrelenting winters the constipated bees become ill and many die.


Moisture is another problem. Bees produce propolis, a bee glue with which they seal up cracks in the hive wall, but some ventilation must be provided to allow water vapor to escape. When there are deep snows, the heat of the hive will melt the surrounding snow cover but the beekeeper must carefully remove any residue so that water won't enter the hive. Other than that, Tandy said, there is little the beekeeper needs to do in winter.


Winter is also the best time, he told me, to become a beekeeper. Searching out catalogs, purchasing and preparing hive-building materials and ordering bees for spring should be done now. The Western New York Honey Producers is an active support group in the region but they do not offer instruction. Tandy generously offered to provide initial guidance to interested beginners himself. His Akron phone number is 716-542-9182.


Since most wild beehives have been lost to disease, we can thank amateur and professional beekeepers for the bees that not only produce honey but also pollinate our plants. We'll see those bees again when the red maples bud and the dandelions bloom early next spring.-- Gerry Rising


Selected References


Hubbell, Sue. 1988. A Book of Bees...and How to Keep Them. New York, NY: Random House.


-----. 1993. Broadsides from the Other Orders: A Book of Bugs. New York, NY: Random House.


Style, Sue. 1993. Honey: From Hive to Honeypot, a Celebration of Bees and Their Bounty. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books.


Thomas, Rosanne Daryl. 2002. Beeing: Life, Motherhood, and 180,000 Honeybees. Guilford, CT: The Lyons Press.