by Monique Léger
Photos by Bob Boisvert

beesIf you have that nice jar of fresh honey on your counter, do you sometimes wonder what the bees are doing now, after a season of honey-making? All the flowers are in the compost, the trees are dropping leaves and keeping their sap closer to their inner trunk, and the grasses are lying down and turning brown.

The bears are still out foraging, but getting ready to hibernate through the long winter. They may not recognize the white wooden hive boxes as food but their noses will surely tell them that each box contains approximately one hundred pounds of honey, wax and bees.  That’s a nice snack before going to sleep for a few months!

The CREWC field where we keep our bees is nestled next to a lovely open forest. And the bears were there long before you and I appeared on the scene. During the winter of 2007-08, a bear slept soundly with our bees and their honey in his stomach. He created quite a spectacle with his fall foraging, and made three beekeepers very sad indeed.

We have been keeping bees at CREWC since 2005. We’ve had all kinds of smaller animals open the hives and help themselves. We would just build up the boxes again and try to soothe the traumatized bees (We don’t know of a homeopathic remedy for bothered bees yet).

bear-snackBut when the bear came, it was game over. The devastation was great and almost total. We had to forgive ourselves for the weakness of our solar powered electric fence, and still be thankful for this hungry bear and his bear nature. Lesson learned: build a better fence or move the hives to a different field. We persevered with a stronger fence.

So what do the bees do in a wooden box all winter? As the weather cools down, the bees slowly increase the temperature in the hive to keep the queen comfortable and at an even temperature. They will move their wings with such speed as to create heat, and take turns moving to the warm center of the huddle (Not unlike a rugby scrum).

If we were to open the hive mid-winter, we would see a ball of bees working to keep warm. Their main goal is to keep the queen happy as she is their only currency for next spring’s livelihood. Bees are always preparing for the next generation of bees to come, true collective altruism. During the cold weather they will eat the honey and pollen they have stored in hexagonal wax cells. The whole summer was about foraging, collecting pollen (a source of protein),  fanning the nectar with their wings to transform it into honey, and getting ready for the next season.

beekeepersFor beekeepers, it is always a delicate balance to harvest some of the honey but also leave the bees with a sufficient amount as well to see them safely through the winter. You never know what kind of winter might come along — it takes some guessing and lots of practice. Lynne, Bob and I harvested over 160 lbs (70kg) of honey from our 4 hives this year. It was half of what we had expected due to the heavy July rains. The honey is still miraculously floral and lemony (you can taste the sumac), but there is less to go around.

We help the bees by building some insulation around them. If you take a walk in the field this winter, you will see blue insulation around the hives and maybe a slight indentation around the bottom in the snow. That’s from the heat produced by the bees melting a few centimetres of snow. Once in a while on a warm winter day, the bees will go out on a cleansing flight. Bees are extremely clean little beings and will not soil their hive unless they are sick.  Check for small yellow stains near the hive, and as Frank Zappa once suggested, don’t you eat that yellow snow.

During this time of year the queen does not lay eggs. There would not be enough food and royal jelly for any new bees. The fall bees, who keep the hive warm, will die as soon as the new bees hatch in the spring. The winter bees end their life exhausted but live to almost six months as opposed to the 4-5 weeks they live during the summer.

If you want to read a fabulous book this winter while huddled near the fire, I would suggest
The Life of the Bee by Maurice Maeterlinck, a 19th century Flemish writer. It is a very poetic and practical rendition of the life of these amazing little creatures.

And a quick sweet tip: warm water with lemon and honey soothes about just anything. Add a bit of cayenne pepper to bring more heat in your body.

We’d love to hear your story about bees. We’ve never heard two of the same, ever!
Email me at: mmleger@sympatico.ca

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You can see more of the bees and beekeepers (Monique Léger, Bob Boisvert & Lynne Lalonde) by visiting Bob’s photo website at  www.pbase.com/boisvert/beesknees and www.pbase.com/boisvert/inbox