Friday, January 15, 2010

The Uneasy Quiet of Winter

hive with no bees flyingDuring mid-January here, you'd have to search a long time to find a smug beekeeper. There has been a good long freeze this year, more than a month since the last time temperatures reached flight-worthy levels (also known as bathroom break levels—more important, though less poetic).
Beekeeping teaches this: nature is an amazing 360-degree extravaganza of millions of living things making their bets and living with the consequences. Last year, in late February, the temperature one Friday night was over 60 degrees F (16 degrees C) and as the sun set and the air chilled all the bees around here made group decisions about where to cluster together for the night ahead. This is about to get a little geeky, but you need to know this: bees cluster together to flex their little wing muscles and keep each other warm. They place themselves over stored food—honeycomb to us humans—about as much as they think they will need.
The colder it gets, however, the closer those bees need to mash together. A ball of bees the size of a basketball can look more like a honeydew melon if the temperature changes enough, and bees can face the choice between warmth and starvation as the honey they cluster over has to nourish more and more bees, and the edge of the stores above recedes a few precious inches away.
By Monday at the beginning of March in 2009, the temperature was 7 degrees F (-14 C) in downtown Washington DC. Every bee colony that bet on an average night in an average winter probably died by Monday morning.
Freaky, worrywart bees, or perhaps profligate "why worry" kinds of bees that were willing to place themselves WAY up above the edge of their stored honey supply were the ones who made it last February. And so bets were made, and whole families lived or died.
Some people tell me that generals are always fighting the last war, and perhaps the beekeeper equivalent is to prepare against the last winter. In January, all of us are facing the choices we made for our bees, as well as the choices they are likely to make for themselves. For millions of years, the genes they received from their ancestors stored up good choice-making tendencies that may be worth a lot less in the turbulent climate changes of today. For just a few years, I have been trying to figure out the challenges my patch of the planet presents to these small creatures, and to learn from beekeepers a whole lot more experienced than I ever will be. The bees place their bets, I place mine, and sometimes I know I am betting against the house.
And January comes, and the truth will out.
The not particularly interesting picture above shows the beehive at the Lederer Youth Garden in Washington DC. This week, for about 72 hours, we have flying (and pooping) weather, and I have visited all 9 hives. A whole bunch of them looked like this: too damn quiet for me. No bees flying, no bees obviously dying, nothing at all. Nine times I steeled myself for the worst, nine times I found warm bees inside.
Let me tell you my beekeeping sins: I treat for mites, though I don't count them enough. I am told to move honey close to clustering bees, but I am far too afraid to mess with the inside of a cold hive. Most of my hives go into the winter twice the recommended size. Some of my bees have viruses and I should let them die, some of my bees have queens more than a year old. Some of my bees get regular visits, some of my bees are on the wrong side of rush hour. But today, they are all alive.
When I think about the vagarities of the choices I make, of the way that Nature spreads her bets across the full spectrum of environmental possibilities, of the not-yet understood changes we all face from the weather, how can I possibly take pride in nine live hives? I can only be very humble, and very glad.


Kelly said...

Hello there...I've run across your blog as I've been researching DC area beekeeping. I'm a hobbyist beekeeper's daughter whose preschool...not too far from Colvin Run considering starting a hive. I was wondering if I could ask you a quick question about where you order your bees from? If it's not too much trouble, feel free to email me at kellymelissaray -at- yahoo -dot- com. Thanks, and glad to hear that the girls are doing well!

Anonymous said...

A very humbling post, indeed. I live in Hot Springs, VA and we have had a much colder winter than normal; there is still snow on the ground (fell before Christmas). I hope to have bees sometime soon.

Barbara's Spot on the Blog said...

I'm glad to see you're posting again and that your hives are thriving.
I really enjoyed reading your blog over the summer and I gleaned a lot of good advice from it. Thanks!

Linda T said...

Hi Toni, Enjoyed hearing your talk on the Bee Culture Webinar - nice to put a voice to someone for whom I have such respect!

Linda T in Atlanta

Joan said...

Glad to have found your blog. I am an urban beekeeper too with one hive in my small city garden in Tacoma Wa. So glad your bees are doing will thus far as are mine. yeah it's been a crazy weather year all up and down the coast. I'll be looking forward to reading your blog more often!

Carrie said...

Hi, Wanted to give you an update on soapmaking....You came last year and gave a demonstration on soapmaking at the Howard County Beekeepers Assoc. I was there with my husband, and you will be happy to know that we actually made a batch of soap last month! It's wonderful soap! I've given it to a sister and a couple of friends and they love it :D I just wanted to thank you again for your encouraging words and wonderful demonstration. Here is a link to my blog with us making soap!

You can see one of your sample bars sitting on the counter in a couple of the pictures...wanted to compare :o) Next time I will make it with the lavender.

Herb Farm said...

Just starting to learn about keeping bees. Or perhaps that should be bees keeping us! So much to learn. We will have lots of flowers for the bees to feast on if we do go ahead - herbs, fruit trees and veggies everywhere! Will check back to see how you are doing.

Anonymous said...

Bees and their bathroom breaks. I have a very red truck and I find yellowish stains on the paint on a daily basis. Since my neighbor is a bee keeper, I wonder if it could bee bee droppings. I am not able to find a picture of bee droppings on the web. These little yellowish stains cause havoc on my shiny new red truck. When its dried on it is difficult to remove and I fear that the paint on my truck will be ruined. Any advice? I have taken pictures of the droppings and can email you some or? Please help

Sweetie Queen Elbi said...

This was pure poetry.