Winter Where You Are
by Jim Tew
I put all my baby nukes in the shade, which resulted in all my baby nukes dying because it didn’t really warm up until the middle of August, to me. I thought you could go and tip colonies, as I had done all my life in Alabama and North Florida. You would tip colonies from the back and get an idea of how heavy they were, but I didn’t know that they would freeze down in Ohio. So, all those beehives died from starvation in the winter. If I’ve gained any credentials to give this talk, I’ve gone through a harsh transition to get through this.
In this room there are people from the deep southern states, Upstate New York and my job is to make us fit in the same size. I’m going to divide this talk up into three categories: the natural way, the enthusiast way, and the commercial way.
Bees are designed nicely to die. If you ever think that there’s going to be a time when our bees live forever in perpetuity: drones die, bees die after stinging, they drown, they mechanicalize and eat their young. They will shamelessly rob each other without any thought and then colonies will just die in the winter. It’s always been that way. In the natural bee world, they have accounted for dying. We’re the ones who want them to live in perpetuity.
They have to go through this transition of foraging outside and that a basic cluster has contracted itself from the approximate 18,800 acres that that colony would’ve foraged over and compressed itself into this mass of bees. And if suddenly, the weather was where it should be, they would spring back out to their normal, everyday procedure when the weather was great. They go through a process of changing over. The brood nest requirement is going to be 90-97 degrees. Their thorax flight temperature has to be at 81 degrees for them to take flight. I’ve read that when that when the swarm breaks up and begins to fly, circle, repeat, what they’re doing is coordinating getting their engine temperature up to flight speed before they zip off at 22 mph. The mites can tolerate 111 degrees, which is fairly stable across insect dome because it’ll actually go up or down a degree, especially when they’re bawling a queen. Whether they’re stinging her to death, all their doing is clustering around her and overheating her. Like the Japanese hornets: they lure, attack, cluster, and kill the scout where this hive is located.
Bees use their flight muscles to bring their temperatures up. They have very quick response to this temperature increase and decline. One paper said that they go into a chill coma at 43 degrees, another said it was 43-52 degrees. There can be some variation on the age of the bee, how well the bee was fed, its health. All kinds of possible reasons. They are clustered at 57 degrees and at 64 they’ve clustered and regathered. At 14 degrees, the cluster will be at its tightest. From 64 down to 14, there is a five time cluster contraction. The tightening process is quite easy to see. But at 14 degrees, it’s roughly equivalent to the insulatory effects of bird feathers or animal fur that the bees are able to control the heat within the cluster. They’ll use micro-vibrations of their flight muscles to generate heat to keep the cluster warm. The mantle bees, the ones on the outside, don’t generate heat and get lost from an economic standpoint. If those bees are generating heat, it gets lost immediately. The outer band of bees that circle the cluster would be the older, forager bees that are remaining — they know their place and don’t move with the younger nursery of bees. More often than not, when it gets down to 14 degrees, those mantle bees are really cold, will squeeze down into that mantle cluster center, and then they’ll be replaced back to the outside.
Flight activation is going to be required to get the bees flying. They can do a minus 22 routinely, minus 40 and boast about it, minus 80 for a short time — a day or two — as long as they have access to fuel. I heard of this cluster heater bee concept from Jürgen Tautz from his book The Buzz About Bees. Inside the cluster, the bees are using micro thoracic vibrations of their flight muscles. They’re giving off enough heat for 70,000 cells.
Winter bees survive about 100 days. Warm season bees have about 30 days. Apparently, winter bees require additional development time after emerging. I thought that a winter bee was a genetically contrived, nutritionally derived organism and to some extent, I’m sure it is, but they still require feeding and nurturing to get them up to full power. If you have varroa mite feeding during that time, it disrupts that preparation (the blood hemolymph protein development that the bees are going to need to be sanctioned as a true winter bee). We choose three compounds off the litany list of things that kill, or at least harass, mites. Randy told me you need to feed bees because the ecosystem is not necessarily diverse enough to carry the population. Lastly, I’ve had all of these commercial beekeepers imply that if I don’t have something around 35,000 colonies I can’t justify calling myself a beekeeper.
I was looking at beekeeper’s insurance at Nationwide and as I was filling out the form, I read “How many times a year do you migrate with your bees?” None. “How much honey do you sell per year at markets and wholesale?” Practically none. “How often do you require truck insurance for safety?” I ended up answering none for most if not all of the questions so I had to attach a disclaimer saying that I’m a retired professor and doing these things out of an exploratory, educational basis. I got a response from Nationwide that because I wasn’t a “traditional” beekeepers, they couldn’t cover me.
If you are a pre-varroa beekeeper, then you remember that even if you suddenly could control varroa without any apprehension, we still don’t have the full ecosystem. Where would you put five million colonies? What are you going to do with them when you catch them? There’s not enough room. It’s hard to do, you just don’t treat for a season and a half.