The other day, a balmy 63 degrees, Marc Hoffman and I donned our beekeeping veils to check out some of the hives he keeps on the far edge of an apple orchard at Heyser Farms market in Colesville.
The bees were as active as ever, the foragers returning with some nectar from camellias or dandelions or whatever is trying to bloom now. A few bees had found some pollen, and they were showing it off as amber-red ankle bracelets.
Honeybees always seem urgent, but their industriousness comes with an extra edge at this time of year. They are driven to get themselves through the winter. Hoffman, a beekeeper from Silver Spring, knows that some will make it, but many will not.
This doesn’t cross many minds in late November, even if the apple in your Thanksgiving pie started life as a flower seven months ago in a co-production between plant and bee. To think at this time of year of apple blossoms and honeybees is to be reminded of the continual process of nature: Next April’s blossoms are already formed in plump brown buds, and the honeybee prepares her perilous journey through the late fall. On chillier days, she is like the flower bud, wrapped against the cold.
Improbably, a colony of honeybees consists of tens of thousands of female worker bees huddled around a queen. They form a cluster squeezed between the hanging frames of comb, a living, quivering ball that expands when it is warm and contracts as the temperature dips. They shiver to generate heat, and the center of this buzzing ball can reach as high as 93 degrees if there are young to protect.
Their energy comes from stored honey, and those close to it share it with others in the cluster, much as we pass the turkey platter around the table.
In spring and summer, worker bees might live a month, starting their duties in the hive before joining the ranks of foragers you see on your garden flowers.
In August, the workers emerge from their larval cells looking different, stouter. Like a lot of animals, they put on weight in advance of winter. Some weird genetic coding also extends their lifespan, from 30 days or so to 200 days or more.
Honeybees have been around a while, even if they came to North America with the early European settlers, so you might think that they have this overwintering thing down pat. Not so.
We live in tough times for honeybees and their human stewards — this wonderful insect is afflicted as never before with a stew of pests and diseases that have brought on a malaise. Beekeepers have come to accept as the norm a winter mortality rate of one-third. When I kept bees (I took this year off), I came to regard a 50 percent survival rate as pretty good; that is, if one of my two hives made it through, I was happy.
Last winter, Hoffman saw only one in four of his hives make it. Why? “Beats me,” he said, though he didn’t medicate for a parasitic mite a year ago. This year, he did.
There is much to go wrong.
If you were a mouse with nowhere to go, a beehive would suddenly look like the Ritz. It is warm, dry and stocked with provisions. When it gets chilly, the beekeeper must restrict the hive entrance with a piece of wood or wire that permits bees to come and go, but not mice. A mouse in the hive runs the risk of getting stung, but more often, the bees are in one part of the abode, huddling, and the mouse is in another, creating an unholy mess. If it can’t find honey, it will eat the wax, and then the plastic foundation on which the wax is built. It fouls the place.
Another concern of the beekeeper is that the bees have enough stores come early fall. If they aren’t turning nectar into honey and packing pollen — both dry up in a drought — the beekeeper must feed them with sugar syrup and pollen patties.
One year, I opened the hive in late winter to find a dead colony. There was plenty of honey in the hive, but the cluster had not gone to it. Naturally, I blamed the queen for leading her flock astray. But my friend and bee mentor, Pat Haskell, put me straight: “Beekeeper error.” What I should have done was lift the frame with the cluster and reposition it near the honey, but very carefully, she said, “because when bees drop off the cluster, they die.”
Wrapping and insulating hives is a routine practice in northern states. Here it comes down to beekeeper preference; some might wrap hives in tar paper or insulating foam, but most, I’d say, don’t. Wrapping a hive can have the unwanted effect of trapping moisture, which freezes, or encouraging bees to go for a little flight when it is too cold to do so.
In the mid-Atlantic region, it is enough simply to provide some sort of windbreak against northerly winds, perhaps a wall of straw bales a few feet from the hives.
Beekeepers also try to have highly populated colonies going into the winter. In one of the hives we opened, there were too few to expect a strong winter cluster, but there was a queen.
Hoffman plans to fold this colony into a stronger one, a decision that brings others. Each colony can have only one queen (or so we are told), so on paper Hoffman must either kill the weaker queen or stick her in with the other for a regal joust to the death. But sometimes, he has discovered, a hive stacked high can support two queens, who, as the bumper sticker pleads, coexist.
Thus, the dance between bee and beekeeper is both fluid and fraught. The more I see other beekeepers, the more I sense that this art cannot be learned wholly as much as experienced.
When Hoffman started out as a backyard hobbyist, he would go into the winter with two colonies, one understrength, the other replete. “One was struggling along, the other going gangbusters. It was the gangbusters one that died: The queen started laying early, they had to keep the brood nest at a high temperature” and they used up the stores of honey doing so, he said. “The one that was struggling got through fine and took off in the spring.”
Local beekeepers like Haskell and Hoffman have come to believe that the way forward for the beleaguered honeybee is for keepers to breed queens locally rather than follow the standard practice of buying in from queen producers in other states.
The expectation is that colonies that are farmed to produce local queens will forge a genetic toughness in a region where the weather can take wild swings.
On a day for gorging on fruit pies — mine’s blackberry — I will spare a thought for the winter bee and her keeper.
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Read past columns by Higgins at washingtonpost.com/home.