A Tale of Two Cities... errrrr, Hives.

Preamble to the Tale

Honeybees do not go dormant in the winter like other insects. Instead, they stay awake inside the hive all clustered together in a ball; they eat the stored honey and shiver their flight muscles to keep warm. It is the job of the winter bees, a special caste of bees born in the fall to keep the colony alive until spring.

More Preamble

In the fall the queen bee lays a special caste of bees called the winter bees. Winter bees are different than summertime bees and have a longer lifespan. When winter bees are in the larva stage, they are fed a diet that is scarce in protein (pollen) compared to summertime bee larva that receive a lot of pollen. The pollen scarce diet causes the winter bees to develop an extra-large fat body that regulates their metabolism and produces vitellogenin, an amazing substance that enhances the bee’s immune system and increases its lifespan. This allows the bees to live 6 months instead of 6 weeks. The winter bees are responsible for eating the stored honey and keeping the colony warm by shivering their flight muscles.

To help the bees survive the cold, beehives are wrapped in an insulated Bee Cozy that provides thermal protection and absorbs some heat from the sun. The roof of the hive gets insulated so that the warm air that the bees produce doesn’t condense on the inner cover and drip back down on the bees. The bees have a small upper entrance and lower entrance for air circulation that prevents moisture build up, but the bees do not leave the hive at all until the weather begins to get warm again in spring, generally at around zero degrees.

Over the winter, the colony gets smaller and smaller as the bees gradually get to the end of their lifespan. In the late winter, the queen bee will start laying eggs again in preparation for spring. The queen starts this process very slowly so that she does not lay more eggs than the colony can keep warm. The winter bees incubate the brood (developing larva) and as it gets warmer the colony’s population increases.

Even in the healthiest of colonies bees die every day. A normal sized colony loses about a thousand bees per day in summer which are replaced by a busy queen that may lay about 1500 eggs per day. The summer losses are foragers that die on the job and go unnoticed. Bees continue to die even in winter but loses are not as high because bees are not foraging and because winter bees have special adaptations that allow them to live longer than summer bees.

Nearly half of Canada’s honeybee colonies did not survive the winter of 2021-2022 resulting in the largest rate of colony loss in 20 years. The season was a devastating year for beekeepers in Manitoba and across Canada as bee losses were in the 40% range for many parts of the country and in Manitoba, they were about 57%. Bee levels were already struggling for various reasons including varroa mite (an invasive parasite) that will decimate 95 percent of colonies by feeding on the honeybees. A colder than usual winter in Manitoba severely weakened bee colonies.

Here are two stories of honeybee survival despite all the odds, and it’s a testament to how much tenacity bees can demonstrate when the odds are against them or when fortune turns to the worst.

Hive 1

I had a couple of stray colonies that I wintered indoors in a friends’ shed during the winter of 2021 – 2022; the hives had come from a small experimental yard close by. Stray colonies are colonies that may have been obtained through hive removals from walls of buildings or colonies that may have been adopted or discovered abandoned and need significant work and care to become viable. For instance, an elderly man who had two colonies passed away in July and the family had no idea how to handle bees and didn't want them on the property, so we took them. Exterminators also sometimes call us if they discover bees on a property and they would rather find an alternative to killing them. An experimental yard is a location where non-producing bees are held away from the main yards and the out yards. This is where we put captured swarms to quarantine, evaluate, and treat if needed. Weaker, not fully established bees are safe here from being targeted and robbed by strong colonies. Experimental yards are also where we might introduce and raise new genetic strains of queens or test the efficacy of treatments for varroa mites and other parasites.β€―The winter of 2021-2022 recorded some of the highest losses seen for decades in the beekeeping industry and true to average statistics, one of the two stray colonies did not survive. Or so we thought . . .

When I came to collect the one thriving colony and the hive set up from the dead out (a hive in which the entire colony has died) my friend Brad discovered a small group of bees still clustered on the frame. This is not unusual, as nearby bees will salvage any honey stores for their own use if they are unchallenged. Then our jaws dropped as we identified that one of these bees was indeed the queen. She was small and underfed and supported by perhaps a half dozen attendant bees. We had arrived just in the nick of time as another cool spring overnight would have finished her and all the others off for sure. In all of my decades of keeping bees, I’ve never seen a queen being one the last bees standing in a caste. Queen bees are generally quicker to fail and often the demise of the queen starts the decline of the entire colony, especially between September and May.

What to do? We quickly popped her into a queen cage (small cage used to protect a queen bee) and then into a small box with a half a cup of press-ganged bees (a bunch of bees) off the frame of a stronger colony. Back home, I transplanted the depleted little group into a small mating nuc (a place where the queen bee goes on her mating flight and returns to lay her eggs) that had a tiny bit of drawn comb (piece of comb where the bees have space to perform all their essential duties), filled the feeding compartment with some watered-down honey, sealed it up for the night and took it indoors to keep it warm.

With zero expectations, I placed the little box of bees outside every day after the temperature was in a comfortable zone (above zero) and sealed them up at night to bring in for warmth. After 4 days, I did an inspection and was very pleased to find a well-fed plump queen and some evidence of comb building with fresh eggs in the cells! I named the queen bee Boudicca after the Celtic Queen who led a courageous uprising against the Roman Empire and is considered a heroine and symbol of the struggle for justice and independence.

I pulled a brood framei of nurse beesii, larvaiii and capped broodiv from a strong colony across the yard making sure it’s queen was not along for the ride. I placed it in a 4-frame box called a nuc, or nucleus box, and after isolating it for the rest of the day so the queen’s pheromonesv would dissipate, I placed the rejuvenated queen and her small band of followers into the nuc box. Bees doing what bees do best, made more bees. I transplanted the growing frame of bees and a healthy queen into the 4-frame box, which was then swapped out for a standard 10 frame box. With another 10 frames of space to expand by the end of the season the population crested at sixty thousand and produced 40 pounds of comb honey as a bonus: a magnificent performance from such a humble beginning.

From destitute refugee to established monarch in one season, Boudicca now rules a well populated healthy kingdom ready for the onslaught of winter. Unlike the historical Celtic Boudicca who allegedly poisoned herself or died of her battle wounds (no one knows for sure), may her reign be long and have a better ending.

Hive 2

I receive many calls over the summer from people that find an errant swarm of bees inconveniently camping on their property. This year there were only a few wayward swarms because the long cold and wet spring left surviving colony populations depleted. Swarms occur when hives are over-populated, so swarming occurred comparatively less than previous years: swarms also are more plentiful in the month of July. Since bees are a calculating creature, they generally don’t swarm if the chances for branching out the colony are good, if plants are in full bloom, and significant time is left in the season to establish themselves and store sufficient honey for the winter.

The last week of August is too late to swarm as the season is winding down quickly and abundant nectar producing plants are going to seed. So, when I got a swarm call in late August, I was reluctant to bother investigating it as forlorn hopes never end well in my experience, but I asked the caller to text me a picture anyway. The homeowners were anxious as these bees had landed on an ornamental lilac smack dab in the middle of their front yard and less that 20 feet from their front door. They had small children and were worried about safety and didn’t want the bees killed, and neither did they want the bees setting up in the eaves or somewhere where they would end up destroyed.

The picture they sent was jaw dropping to say the least. Massive is a good description, and to say that it is the largest swarm I’ve ever seen wouldn’t count as hyperbole (exaggeration). So, fifteen minutes later, loaded with equipment and my spouse playing the role of assistant we drove to East St. Paul and prepared to re-home this unseasonal swarm and see if we could give them a chance of survival that nature somehow convinced them was possible.

Swarms of bees come in various sizes. As small as a grapefruit, if it’s an after or secondary swarm, but up to as large as a good-sized pumpkin. This was neither. This was easily more than twice the size of a large pumpkin and tightly bunched.

We set up a standard hive bodyvi below the swarm in the ornamental Lilac tree, then after evaluating the mass of bees added a second section. Usually, one box or honey supervii as the vernacular goes is more than plenty. After the initial shake down, there were bees everywhere. The bees seemed eager to cram into their new home, but the large population left a lot of bees on the outside of the hive body where they settled overnight for collection in the morning.

I arrived on site at 5 am before sunrise as bees are moved in the dark to ensure they are all in the right place and because bees don’t fly in the dark. Usually, you just close-up the entrance, strap down the hive sections and transport it away to a new location while the bees are working away inside waiting for the sun to rise.

Not these guys . . .

At least 40 percent of about 55 thousand bees were hanging around outside on the walls of the hive body as it was a warm night and bees will do this kind of thing to help keep the inside temperature cooler by not adding extra body heat. I managed to lift the set up into the back of a closed vehicle without too much trouble and got them to the farm.

So many bees and so little time for them to get ready for winter!

The farm still had plenty of alfalfa in bloom as the pasture was left to reseed so at least there were some resources available. I’d go out to feed them every six days or so and see if the queen was laying to ensure they survived.

A week later I was driving out to the farm and was astonished to see a full quarter section of sunflowers near the farm in full bloom. I stopped to check more closely as it was very late in the season for sunflowers to bloom. A stroll along the outer row showed hundreds and hundreds of bees working the huge heads of tiny blooms with determined abandon. Looking across the pasture to the bee yard, I saw a steady stream of bees flying in the classic efficient β€œBee-line” to and fro moving nectar into the colonies.

Examining the new colony, I could see there was incredible progress with fresh comb being drawn out everywhere and frame after frame was filled with bright yellow nectar and pollen from the adjacent field. The queen was laying eggs with systematic precision and looked fat and happy as she filled cell after cell with some larva already hatched and tended to by the nurse bee caste. Many hands make light work rung true as everything was shaping up incredibly quickly and my doubts of this ending poorly vanished entirely.

Life finds a way, is a line spoken by Dr. Malcom in the film Jurassic Park. What the statement is saying is that no matter what happens in life, species and nature will always find a way to reproduce and survive even in nature’s hardest conditions. Life will find a way, and the bees teach us everyday about potential and perseverance. Beekeepers tend to generalize outcomes and expect little to avoid disappointment, but part of the joy in keeping bees is how they continue to surprise you. Scores of seasons leaves a beekeeper mistakenly thinking they have seen everything, but bees continuously appear to take pleasure in proving us wrong.

i A box where bees build their combs to raise new bees.

ii These bees nurture and feed bee larvae.

iii When an egg hatches it becomes larva. Bee larvae is a legless and featureless white grub. It eats and never leaves the individual wax cell.

iv Young larvae eat their way through the royal jelly until they become crowded then stretch lengthwise in the cell. Soon they begin to spin a cocoon and the older bees cap the cell as they go into a pupa stage. These cells are called capped brood.

vA pheromone is a secreted or excreted chemical factor that triggers a social response in members of the same species. Queen honeybees produce a pheromone that modulates many aspects of worker bee physiology and behavior that is critical for colony organization. The exact chemical blend produced by the queen differs between queens.

vi A hive body is where the hive will store its reserves of honey and pollen. The common size of a deep hive body is 19 7/8’’ in length, 16 ΒΌ β€˜β€™ wide and 9 5/8’’ in height.

vii Super is short for superstructure, which refers to the boxes placed on a beehive for bees to store honey.