We are now in the middle of winter and strangely us beekeepers actually prefer a cold, sharp winter with days of snow and ice as this keeps our bees safely tucked up nice and warm in the centre of the hive with plenty of stores from last summer to keep them going. Meanwhile, their enemies the overwintering Queen wasps and hornets are killed off in large numbers by the continuing cold. However, the strangely warm winter we are experiencing is confusing many plants and trees who are already flowering 6-8 weeks earlier than normal. Here in Hampshire, cherry trees are already in full blossom in the first week of February!
Honey bee foraging on a Cherry Blossom
As flying insects, bees have incredibly powerful flying muscles inside their thorax, but these need to be kept at around 30C to work properly when flying and in colder temperatures foraging bees lose heat rapidly. Keeping warm requires an enormous amount of energy which is why bees main food is in the form of high energy sugars that make up the bulk of honey. Inside the beehive, the temperature is usually kept at around 15-20C at the centre of the colony, whatever the temperature outside. The worker bees do this by vibrating their wing muscles to generate heat whilst all clustered together to keep the entire colony warm, making sure the Queen stays in the centre, protected and well fed. This process ensures the colony survives through winter whilst consuming the minimum amount of stored honey.
One of the Bee Good hives full of busy bees
The design of beehive the colony resides in can be a critical factor in the bees survival. In the wild, feral colonies would typically live by choice inside a mature tree such as an Oak or Beech tree within a hollowed out area with a small entrance at the base. Surrounded by 8-9” of wood on all sides crease a super-insulated environment from which the colony can survive through the winter on minimal stores. Thermodynamics dictates that keeping a colony of bees through winter in a wooden box with walls only 3/4” thick requires a lot more consumed energy to keep at the desired temperature and therefore a lot more stores are required to survive in a beehive than would be in the wild.
Honey bees at the hive entrance
As someone in Star Trek once said “Ye canny argue with the laws of physics” and we at Bee Good have been using high density polystyrene hives for some years and have now replaced all our wooden hives with these lightweight, well-insulated models. Originating in Scandinavia where colonies can regularly survive temperatures of -30C, polystyrene hives are now in common use across continental Europe and reviewing our records, I can see that since the change away from wood, we have never lost a bee colony due to starvation over winter. I am sure that the bees are generally happy as the extremely well-insulated environment enables the colony to keep the temperature at the required level whilst consuming a lot less stored honey in the process.
Happy bees building honeycomb
We also believe that our choice of polystyrene hives for the Bee Good bees means that the Queen is able to use the previous years stored pollen to start laying some 4-6 weeks earlier than most colonies in wooden hives that have already consumed most of their stores. Looking after our bees now, ensuring the colonies can raise large numbers of workers early in the season will pay huge dividends later when the colony will be able to take full advantage of the main crop of nectar-rich flowers to maximise the potential honey harvest later in the year.