As temperatures have plummeted and flowers have vanished, honeybees have tucked into their hives for winter.
Marc Hoffman, a beekeeper from Silver Spring, Md., knows that some will make it but many won’t .
A colony of honeybees consists of tens of thousands of female worker bees huddled around a queen. They form a cluster squeezed among the hanging frames of comb, a living, quivering ball that expands when the weather 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.
The bees’ energy comes from stored honey, and those close to it share it with others in the cluster.
In spring and summer, worker bees might live a month, starting their duties in the hive before foraging in the garden.
In August, the workers emerge from their larval cells looking stouter. They put on weight in advance of winter. Weird genetic coding also extends their lifespan, from about 30 days to 200 days or more.
Beekeepers have come to accept as the norm a winter mortality rate of one-third. Last winter, only one in four of Hoffman’s hives made it. So much can go wrong.
One concern is that the bees have enough stores come early fall. If they aren’t turning nectar into honey and packing pollen — both of which dry up in a drought — the beekeeper must feed them with sugar syrup and pollen patties.
Wrapping and insulating hives is a routine practice in Northern states — although this can have the unwanted effect of trapping moisture, which freezes, or encouraging bees to go for a flight when it is too cold to do so.
Beekeepers also try to have highly populated colonies going into the winter. In one of the hives we opened, there were too few bees to expect a strong winter cluster.
Hoffman plans to fold the colony into a stronger one. Because each colony can have only one queen — or so we are told — he must either kill the weaker queen or stick her in with the other for a joust to the death. But sometimes, he has discovered, a hive stacked high can support two queens.
Thus, the dance between bee and beekeeper is both fluid and fraught.
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