Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Bee Hive in Winter

Honey bees area unique among insects. In temperate areas, they spend the winter inside the hive alive and active unlike wasps and hornets that die in the winter or lady bug beetles that hibernate. The honey bee accomplishes its winter-time survival by making and storing a high-energy food, honey. By eating the high-energy food, the worker honey bee is able to generate about 104 degrees Fahrenheit of heat in its flight muscles to warm the colony. Again, the honey bees are unique among insects, which are cold-blooded animals, in their ability to generate heat. The bees use the heat that they produce to warm the center of their cluster of bees. They hold the heat inside the cluster by forming a tight layer of bees on the outside. These bees, which eventually chill, periodically exchange places with bees inside the cluster. The cluster of bees expands and contracts with the outside temperature. The bees don’t waste energy warming the entire hive cavity, only the cluster of bees. The colder the weather gets, the more tightly compacted the cluster gets. As the cluster shrinks, it leaves a surrounding area of empty honeycomb. During prolonged periods of cold weather, the bees often remain tightly clustered; and they don’t venture the short distance to where honey is stored in the hive. Beekeepers often find colonies that have starved with ample stores of honey only inches away from the cluster.

The structure of a bee hive makes it quite an effective housing for surviving the harsh elements of winter. Empty cells of honeycomb make excellent insulation, and parallel sheets of comb effectively block winter winds. As the cluster of bees consumes the food stored above them, the cluster moves upward into this space. This upward movement of bees during the winter gives beekeepers an opportunity to move bees from lower frames as I am doing in today’s photo. I am transferring bees from the dark-colored deep hive body into medium boxes filled with honey.

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