The beekeeper’s holiday dreams of honeybees

Image 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.

Adrian Higgins has been writing about the intersection of gardening and life for more than 25 years, and joined the Post in 1994. He is the author of several books, including the Washington Post Garden Book and Chanticleer, a Pleasure Garden.

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.


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Been a Beekeeper for 20 years
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