How buzzing collective survives icy blasts

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In the latest of his articles on his forays as a beekeeper, Andrew Brown looks at the impact of winter on his hive

It is cold. All too often it is dark and damp. The wind scurries in from the West bringing bouts of rain that last for hours. Or else the nights are clear and all the heat seems to be sucked out of the land and head off into space. In short it is winter.

For bees this is a real problem. There is no food to be found and even if there was it would be too cold or too windy for the bees to fly out and find it. They also have the problem that each of their bodies is very small and it is much easier for a small creature to lose heat than it is for a large one. How come then that bees are quite capable of surviving even the coldest of British winters?

The answer lies in the collective. Whilst one bee is very small and will quickly lose heat, a ball of a few thousand bees can retain much more of its heat and only needs expose a small proportion of the outside bodies to the cold.

Like penguins in the depths of the Antarctic, the bees take turns on the outside of the group and then work their way into the warmth of the centre. Somewhere near the middle the queen remains safe, protected by the bodies of the others. Bees can also shiver to generate heat and by working together each individual bee has the best possible chance to preserve energy and survive.

But, of course, none of this is easy.

All through the winter energy is being used up and the bees need to be able to draw down on their stores of energy rich honey to give them the boost of strength that they need to survive. If there is too little honey in the hive or something happens to make them use it up more rapidly or for longer than anticipated then the colony can easily collapse and die.

Curiously one of those dangerous things can be a nice warm winter day with little wind.

If the temperature does rise then the bees can be fooled into thinking that it is safe to go out and look for food. If they use up energy looking for flowers which aren’t in blossom then they can easily exhaust themselves or draw on their stores of food too rapidly.

This means that if we wish to help bees to get through winter successfully then the most helpful thing that human beings can do is to provide food late in the season or early in spring so that we shorten the time when bees have to draw down on their stores.

Planting lots of early flowering bulbs helps bees and it also helps them to leave ivy to flower before you cut any of it back. Ivy attracts bees and is rich in sugary substances at a time of the year when little else is out.

Less native, but also very convenient for bees, is Himalayan Balsam. This is a real problem plant, choking the banks of many of our waterways and roadsides and crowding out our native plants. It does, however, generate a lot of nectar very late in the season and you will find a huge variety of bumble bees and large numbers of honeybees visiting it in late autumn.

Whilst collective human actions may have helped bees by transporting this plant across the globe, our actions in burning fossils have been much less helpful.

An increasingly variable and unpredictable climate means more warm winter days when bees use up energy unproductively and more strange seasons, like that of 2012, when spring food isn’t available until a lot of colonies have starved.

For the individual beekeeper winter involves holding your nerve. It helps to make sure your bees go into winter strong and well fed with ample stores of honey. It helps to provide them with extra syrup and fondant to give them even greater stores.

Mainly it helps to leave them alone.

If you are trying, as I am, to get your honeybees through their first winter then it is very tempting to want to look in on the hive and check how they are doing. But opening the hive lets in the cold and breaks the seals that the bees have built to keep out the wind.

So I have the perfect excuse for sitting inside my nice warm, centrally heated house drinking coffee.

At this time of year bees can mostly be left to their own devices and the beekeeper can mostly be left to worry in comfort over whether they are strong enough to survive long enough to prosper in the spring.