Spring Colony Buildup – And the Hygge Method of Late-winter Hive Rescue
By now, you’re either itching to get out to your bee yard, or you’re cuddled up cozy with no desire to brave the elements. While the sun rises and sets, the days are getting longer, and Baby New Year brood is emerging. If you haven’t yet performed your first inspection of 2024, now is the time to look at the weather forecast for a mild day to peek in and around your colonies. When signs of stress and hunger appear, your fast action can save a colony. Of course, you shouldn’t disturb a sleeping cluster during freezing temperatures or interrupt cluster organization when temperatures are below 50˚F. But a timely non-invasive inspection to tip off a milder-day rescue mission can save a struggling cluster, preserve needed individual worker bees, and in turn, help your honey gains.
Use the principles of hygge to break out of your own hibernation
More than anything I can think of, I hate feeling cold in the winter. I think it is because my grandmother came from Denmark, and my grandfather’s family descended from generations of Appalachian Southerners — genetically speaking, I am a cold front incarnate. Winter temperature regulation is not my forte.
One winter day a few years ago, when I should have been working, I was procrastinating, surfing the internet, looking at warm scarves. I stumbled across an article about the principles of “hygge.” Hygge (pronounced “hooga”) is the Danish concept of well-being. It’s thought that the word “hygge,” like the English word “hug,” comes from the Old Norse word “hugga,” which means “to comfort” or “to protect from the outside world.” A bit of a meme-word today, we throw this term around like a warm snuggie to conjure an enduring coziness. For me, discovering this concept was something of a miracle but also an upset that this hadn’t been passed down to me from my Danish grandmother. Yet, since I learned about hygge, I’ve had an easier time getting through the winter. This winter, for example, I’m taking it to happy extremes — I’m wearing snow pants indoors every day. It’s really working for me. I’m happier and cozier than ever.
That winter day of my hygge discovery, my bees also prevailed. I’d had a particularly busy year, starting work full-time in soil and water conservation while finishing a research capstone for a master’s degree. I skimped on my own hive inspections that fall. But shortly after divining hygge consciousness, I could no longer neglect my cold hives to fend for themselves. On a milder day, I had to step in to see if they needed a hand staying cozy and protected from the cold. I took a trip to all of my bee yards.
I found 10 hives that were light as feathers with low populations. From my experience up to that point, I knew these colonies were goners. But in the spirit of optimism, and still starry-eyed over my new job and academic research process, I decided to revise my assessment — rather than think of my goner-hives as sacrificial, why not try an experiment to save them all? I decided to unconventionally combine one act of rescue I’d found to always work with a forbidden act I’d always been told not to do. I’ll detail my simple rescue mission after we take a look at late-winter cluster dynamics.
Winter beekeeping heroics — keep it simple
Winter beekeeping is straightforward. It’s important to keep up inspections, but you have to keep it mellow. This goes for late-winter inspections as well. It’s important not to think spring too soon, even if you see bees flying on mild days. Your visit to the bee yard should be limited to assessing:
- Do bees have enough to eat?
- Is the cluster stressed?
Of course, you’ll find different cluster dynamics depending on your area. In February, bees could be huddled tightly around a softball-sized brood nest in the freezing cold or they might be breaking cluster and foraging for early tree and shrub pollen. Beekeepers in Mobile, Alabama will have a lot more brood to contend with come Groundhog Day than those in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and beekeepers closer to southern coasts might catch a swarm for their sweetheart for Valentine’s Day. But most of us inlanders need to cool our jets and not be overzealous during this warm winter. Stick to simple, subtle interventions to assist early colony buildup only if they need it. But how can you tell which hives are needy and which are not?
Signs of stress outside the hive
Non-invasive hive inspections are good for your bees — and good for you! Time spent outside triggers our bodies to create vitamin D, boosts our mood and immune systems, and a University of Michigan study from 2008 found that interacting with nature in a peaceful environment significantly improves attention span and memory. Yes — just standing in your apiary, looking at your beehives is an act of self-care!
Obviously, it’s good for bees to get out and soak up some winter sun too, not only because they are so grouchy with cabin fever, but because bees need to take “cleansing flights.” In fact, as winter progresses toward spring, your close attention to cleansing flights can tell you a lot of need-to-know information. Tip: Stand clear of the flight path! Don’t look up without protective eye gear or you might get some goo in your eyes! And don’t wear your new white bee suit you got for Christmas unless you like polka dots.
Speaking of clean, white surfaces, outside-the-hive signs of bee stress stand out better with snow on the ground. It’s easy to spot dead bees on white snow. What are those bees doing, lying frozen a foot or a few from the hive? Not much anymore! Above all, they’re no longer serving as pathogen incubators. As a function of the superorganism, bees will often remove themselves from the cluster once their fitness is severely impaired. As though by instinct, sick bees hosting a high threshold of disease eject themselves from the healthier cluster in order to stop the pathogenic spread — or so we’ve come to believe. More might also be true. Beekeepers with even a small amount of experience have likely witnessed the hive-entrance struggle of a weak bee trying to gain admission back home, thwarted by stealthier guard bees. Just last Tuesday I watched a robust worker carry a weak worker, fly it a few feet from the hive, and drop it on the cold ground. Clearly, some disadvantaged bees are being forcibly removed from the hive. Regardless of whether a worker bee wanted to leave the colony or not, the number of bee carcasses in front of a hive is a measure of colony survival likelihood, as may be the yellow and brown spots on the snow as well as streaking on the hive body — signs of dysentery.
When it comes to understanding the touch-and-go dynamics of late-winter colony buildup and the factors impeding it, I turn to the awesome body of work Randy Oliver has published here in the ABJ and on his Scientific Beekeeping website. Randy’s series of articles “Understanding Colony Buildup and Decline” and “The Nosema Problem” offer such extensive insight into the age-old question of “how to get bees over the early-spring hump” that these series of articles should be required reading of any bee school. He compares and contrasts several philosophies, demystifying late-winter colony collapse. A lot of what I understand is based on Randy’s publications, paired with some of my own field observations.
Mid-winter clusters are microhabitats with strict parameters. Clusters have to maintain optimal temperature and humidity levels and cannot tolerate dead bee bodies. Fallen soldiers are issued downward, dropped from the cluster, and removed from the hive on mild days. Excess water is also discharged downward, but vapor droplets also accumulate above the brood nest as condensation. A slight forward pitch of hives allows water to drain. This is essential, as winter bees can’t carry away waste water the way they can carry expired bees. Pools of water on bottom boards are a major stressor, promoting mold and wreaking havoc on the cluster’s delicate moisture equilibrium.
Winter water is a precious hive resource kept in critical balance during clustered months. A sophisticated water recycling system is regulated by individual bees as a function of the whole colony. Like any organism, bees need water to remain hydrated and keep the hemolymph flowing. Equally important is respiration, a moisture release as water vapor escapes on their breath.
Respiration is quite variable in the winter cluster — magically so when prolonged sub-freezing temperatures extend from days to weeks. During the coldest winter stretch, bees forming the outer shell of the cluster huddle in tightly and the colony lowers its requirement for oxygen. A wintering cluster enters a state of hypoxia, where metabolic rates are greatly reduced, and bees are able to suspend animation to a degree, reducing food and oxygen intake. This is crucial during the coldest spells, when bees have to consume more honey to keep up with the energetic demands of generating heat, an activity that causes heavier breathing the harder they have to work.
Water vapor released during heavy breathing is not simply a byproduct of respiration but a release valve for an individual bee’s internal water storage, which can build up to excessive thresholds. The hindgut, though it stores waste, is a highly expandable chamber that can hold a great deal of water which can filter back through the body as recycled hydration for the cluster. Under confinement, vast amounts of water accumulate in the honey bee hindgut. This critical hindgut equilibrium fluctuates considerably more as winter wears on.
Consider the increase of colony activity in late winter and the amount of energy required. All at once, brood nests expand, needing cluster coverage, causing worker bees to consume more honey in order to feed brood and generate more heat to maintain the balmy 95°F atmosphere of the brood nest. Luckily, the raising of brood requires a great deal of water as nurses synthesize royal jelly and reconstitute bee bread. Hopefully, the brood nest is large enough and solid enough to offset water-laden hindguts, which comfortably accommodate a holding capacity of up to 33% of a bee’s body weight. Recycling of body-held water for brood expansion is one mechanism of stasis. The other is being graced with weather conducive to cleansing flights. If brood nest water demands are low and bee confinement runs long, bees may either soil the hive or more commonly starve. Bees will sooner perish than evacuate hindguts in the hive, so once hindguts reach max capacity, bees will stop eating. That said, accidents do happen.
Spots and streaks resulting from cleansing flights are a sign of a stressed colony often suffering from a moisture imbalance. “But spots and streaks are a symptom of a nosema fungal infection,” you might say. Interestingly, so many of us beekeepers understood this to be true for so many decades. But a leisurely read through the above-mentioned Randy Oliver articles point out a great deal of interesting facts derived from earlier science on nosema and dysentery and his observations and field studies. Extensively examining honey bee guts under microscopes, and scraping bee droppings from hive materials, time and time again, Randy did not find significant correlations between hive streaking and nosema spore counts. However, by ….