Photo by Dawn Combs
Today, as we untied the Christmas tree from the roof of the car, a bee buzzed by my right ear. In this season of cold, there is very little sound other than the wail of the wind. It is a hard time of year for a gardener. The birds have left in great numbers. Those that are left huddle in the crooks of trees and hunt for bright red berries rather than filling the air with their joyful music. The constant hum that fills the air on a bee farm has fallen silent for a few months. It is noticeably quiet.
Have you ever wondered what the bees do during these long winter months?
The colony lives on, of course, though many in their number will not see the coming of spring. Their short lives will, however, be longer than bees born in warm weather.
The bees form a winter cluster, or rather they clump themselves into a big communal ball. The queen stays in the center of this ball all winter long, staying the warmest. The rest of the colony is made up of workers. The male drone was escorted out in the fall—he is too much of a draw on winter stores to be allowed to stay. The remaining bees keep themselves and the hive warm by beating their wings and constantly swapping places. The workers who are on the inside of the cluster have a chance to warm up, but when those on the outside begin to chill they are allowed to take their place inside.
Depending on where you are in the country, how cold the winter and the size of the colony going into winter, the queen will either slow down egg laying dramatically or stop altogether. This means a well-deserved break here in our neck of the woods for at least a couple months.
All winter long, the bees try to stay warm and they eat their “preserves.” While we have pickled beets, frozen beans and a side of beef, the bees have various types of pollen and honey stores. On bright, sunny days, when the wind is quiet the bees get to exercise their wings a bit. Today, I’m sure that the bee that buzzed my ear was out taking her chance for a potty break—they don’t soil their hive. I’m sure she continued on in a circle around the pond and then headed home before she got too cold.
In the winter, it is truly a gift to have the silence broken even by one lone bee. This is a hard time for the bees, but it isn’t the cold, it’s the wind. We protect our bees from the wind with snow fencing and hive wrap. All of our hard work pays off when the countryside begins to warm in the spring. The queen begins to lay her brood again and the colony ventures out to fill the air in my gardens with the music of their buzzing.