Saturday, January 13, 2007

Drying Bees for Fun and Profit

wet cold bees on towelFew things in daily life hurt my heart like the cold, wet body of a honeybee victim of winter. There seem to be many more of them these days, in part because all of the beekeepers around here have to work hard now to keep putting sugar syrup out. The bees are running through their stores this winter because it is warm(er), they are more active, but there are no more flowers.

Warm as it is, the nighttime temps usually get pretty low even without a frost, generally 40 degrees F (4 degrees C). I learned from MaryEllen that at 46 degrees F (8 degrees C) bees go into something called a "chill coma." They cannot move, they cannot fly, and they can sit there in the middle of a pool of golden honey and still die. All that sugar syrup gets as cold as the surroundings, and sometimes I think, when a bee drinks up too fast, her temperature falls below coma level, and she is in trouble.

But, the important lesson *I* have learned is this: honeybees are rarely as dead as they look. And my husband now has another of my behaviour quirks to live with.

I've taken to collecting (Careful! They are small and fragile!) and reviving the sodden bees around and in those pools of winter syrup. Here's how you can, too.

Start with a roll of paper towels. The unbleached ones are best, because the dioxin in the white ones seems to poison bees with extended exposure (I cannot always find the brown ones). Expose a couple of full sheets (I like to keep them attached to the roll), and gather as many bees as you can, placing them gently into the middle.

bees waking upPlace the towels carefully over a heating register or other gentle source of heat (a blow dryer would be too rough). I hold down the edges with heavy books.

Get your husband equivalent to turn up the thermostat or crack a door or something to get the heat to kick on. The prepare for a wonderful, up close experience in bee-watching.

As the bees dry and warm, they begin to buzz and walk around. They will spend alot of time running their front legs over their antennae and wings, cleaning and drying. Their butts will go up as they start rubbing their hind legs together. The buzzes come at first in little bursts, as they get back control of their wings and warm those muscles up.

The bees come online gradually, and not all on the same timeline. I use the register nearest my back door, because as each individual achieves critical warmth, she will rise up and fly. I can see the sun through her translucent body. Then I just pop the door open, and off she goes.

At first, the bees come online in one-sies and two-sies. But the rate is like an air popper for popcorn. You get one or two right away, then there is the great crowd, then the last couple of laggards, and then one or two that never fly again.

The good news is that I have done 18 bees at a time, and had them all fly. I've also picked up 6, and found that one or two awakened with damaged wings...I had done them no favors. I might think I am fooling with raising the dead, but my limitations in helping them are humbling. Still, I wonder if bees return to the hive with the equivalent of an old-time prophet's testimony: "And then did the pudgy brunette make the winds blow warm..."


MaryEllen said...

Just a note on the chill coma- Of course you see bees flying frequently at temperatures below 46 degrees- The chill coma occurs when the bees body temperature drops below this. This may happen close to 46 degrees ambient temp if say the bee is wet and in the shade, but for a lone bee it may require much lower temperatures in some cases- say she has a full tummy (fuel) and is vigorously moving around in a sunny spot.

Phang said...

Just another beekeeping bookkeeping note: the roof bees just got another ten pounds of sugar in the form of 2:1 syrup. About a gallon went to Twain, where the bees (on this relatively cold day) were once again at the top, and about a quart and a half (including the goopy really thick stuff on the bottom) went to Wilde, where the girls were once again WAY far low. I am thinking about giving a frame of Wilde honey to Twain. Maybe if we get another warm day soon...

Phang said...

OK, so yesterday (January 18) MaryEllen and I checked the hives at the Mill. They are all light on stores, but are sort of half-heartedly taking syrup and fondant, so not a lot to do there. MaryEllen spotted frames of capped honey inside my hive, so things are probably OK on the food issue.

By the way, I want to apologize to you all for being a big fat whiner. I wring my hands alot, but still have 5 live hives (say THAT three times fast) and how can that be bad?