Not long ago, I stared at a white landscape watching fine snow blow from west to east building drifts I could not control. I thought about those five or six bluebirds cuddled up together in their wooden house with its front door open to the wind. A week before, I watched the bluebirds flying briefly and going in and out of their box for exercise and for "potty." They were all back inside the next time I looked out. I wondered about the honeybees in my much-neglected apiary. Would they survive? The forecaster mentioned a wind chill of 30 degrees below zero.
Bees don’t hibernate like bears, frogs and earthworms - which go into a sort of stupor. If we could see inside a hive in winter, there would be a "ball of bees" - a cluster - around the frames of honey. The outer surface of the cluster is firm, a lot of bees crowded together, apparently not moving. Eventually they will eat and exercise as others will form the protective shell of the cluster. It’s a sort of slow rotation. The bees next to the honeycomb eat honey; it requires 40 to 50 pounds to get the colony’s thousands of bees through the winter. The ones next to the honeycomb eat and move around or fan their wings to create heat in the hive. They take turns. Leaving the hive would be fatal because bees die in temperatures of 41 degrees or below. How can they possibly survive in that unprotected hive with its door open for ventilation? I stay cozy with electric heat, but bees depend on the ever-changing cluster to keep warm.
Each active colony has a queen. It’s up to her lay the eggs - but not in winter. She leaves the hive only once, soon after hatching. On this maiden flight, one or more drones impregnate her for life and then die. Unlike almost other species, she can then deposit a fertile egg, or a nonfertile one, at will. Only a few drones are needed, but if there’s a shortage the workers direct the queen to lay an infertile egg, which produces a fatherless drone. When and where the queen lays an egg is determined by the adolescent worker females who feed her, comb her hair, groom her and clean the empty cells just before she backs in and attaches one egg in the cell.
By moving their bodies or fanning their wings, the well-fed workers regulate the temperature in the cluster. The faster they move, the warmer the cluster becomes. Too many moving too fast can actually raise the temperature to around 70 degrees. Warmer temperatures might cause the honeycomb to become soft enough to sag. In spring, workers notify the queen to begin attaching eggs to the interior bottoms of clean, properly shaped cells. This egg laying will be timed to produce thousands of new workers before the spring "honey flow." This is early in the Southern states and later in Northern ones, but they know when to increase their work force.
Wild bees store honey in hollow trees or caves and cooperate to survive in winter. Our honeybees were Three Banded Italians, imported because of their better dispositions and greater honey production. Today, bees in a hollow tree are sometimes Italians that swarmed out of an established apiary. The native bees that American Indians and early pioneers knew are vicious little black bees.
Cutting a bee tree was common when I was a youngster. Several men got together on a cold winter day and cut the tree down for wood, and each man took a supply of honey and left the bees to die. One experience with wild black bees, in warm weather, was enough to repel the tree cutters forever.