How honeybees and beekeepers get through the winter
By Thea Vierling, Kenwood
Lots of people think that honeybees sleep all winter long like bears, hibernating comfortably in their cave – or in their hive. Bumblebees and other native bees do exactly that, but not our hardworking honeybees. Honeybees are the only bees that make enough honey to last all winter long, which is why they are called honeybees. To do this, they have to drastically cut back on eating too much honey in the fall, and they do that by substantially decreasing their population. As winter approaches there’s only a very small cluster of bees in the hive. The population decrease starts in August and gradually falls to its smallest size by mid-January. Then, by the end of January, the population begins to grow rapidly if – and it’s a big if – they survive all the cold spells, all the smoky days, all the robbing by other bees, and the “robbing” by the beekeepers.
How do the bees decrease the population of the hive? The Queen stops laying eggs and the drones (male bees) that are still living get kicked out of the hive, starve, and/or are eaten. Those poor drones, who are so important to the survival of the hive in the spring, are not needed in the winter. They really don’t do anything in the winter except eat the food supply. Their bodies are bigger than the worker bees and they consume a lot of food, so the worker bees have to get rid of them to save the honey. Remember the temperatures in December and January can dip into freezing many nights, and the worker bees have to keep the ball of bees at a temperature of 94 degrees. If it is 32 degrees outside, they have to work a lot to raise the heat to 94!
OK, enough details about the honeybees. What about the hardworking beekeepers? The fall/winter is a busy season for them, as well. They have to clean all their equipment, bottle honey, get all the wax cleaned to make candles and lotion bars, and most important, get together socially to have fun and learn from each other. During this time beekeepers do not go into their hives at all, but gather at each other’s houses and work together. The East Cluster group of the Sonoma County Beekeepers Association (SCBA) did just that for the last two weekends.
Susan Simmons and Lauri Dorman, coordinators for the East Cluster, organized a workshop with the help of Kristina Torres and Thea Vierling. The group produced a lot of beeswax products. No one is the boss; we all learn from each other. Kids and spouses are welcome to join in the fun. Folks without bees who are members of SCBA can also attend. When we make a mistake, the wax gets thrown into the pot and melted down again for another candle.
These activities are community building and are some of the most important things we can learn from the honeybees. Honeybees live in a hive, which is like a small house, and are totally dependent on each other to get everything done to survive. We live in a “human hive” and what we need to do is help each other to create that feeling of belonging and that we are there for each other, especially in case of a crisis. This is something most of us knew before the fire of 2017, but, since the fire, it is something that we all talk about. We need to take care of our community, of our neighborhoods, and of each other.