Monday, April 25, 2005

Bees at Fifty Degrees

This I give you up front: other people (*and* bees) have it much worse, but none of us flourish in 40 degree rain in late April, especially after several days over 70.

The weekend was as cold and wet as predicted, and while the garden needed the moisture – the bees were also having to work hard to get water back to the colonies – none of us needed the chill. Wondering what kind of hitch the weather may have put into the efforts of (struggling) Colony 1 sent me back to the beekeeping book, and to acquiring another little piece of the picture that may help me take better care of the girls on the roof.

Spring is the borderline time for bee colonies. Within the band of temperatures between 42 degrees F and 68 degrees F bees move from near dead and flightless to viable foragers: at 40 degrees F a solo bee is a dead bee. We've been bumping 40 every night this weekend. Luckily, the bees make their own environment inside the hive.

At 57 degrees they cluster together inside the hive bodies like a little ball o'bees and keep each other warm just by buzzing together. They need, however:
  1. enough bees to build that ball of warm;

  2. enough food to fuel those buzzing bodies through the brisk bit;

  3. food stores near enough for a solo bee to reach without perishing of cold.

The gals upstairs must have been in a ball all weekend, putting a firm halt to nectar, pollen, and water gathering. And what about all the new bees that the queens have laid? What happens to them in a cold snap?

OK, and what about poor Colony 1? Colony 2 clearly had lots of comb and food stores at hand before the rain came, but Colony 1 had just gotten its groove on. Another setback?

So another visit today, but not with the disruption of pulling off the top and looking at frames. I did open up the front entrances a bit more and peer in, though. Colony 1 lives on, though Colony 2 is living better. There is even a little pile of pollen at the entrance to Colony 2.It has fallen off the jam of energetic gatherers who fly in and out of there full tilt.

In this cool weather, they get a late start in the AM, and it appears that they are taking advantage of the comparative warmth (64 degrees) of this afternoon to extend the hunt. The pollen has changed from the golden brown stuff that probably came from the maples to something much paler and yellow. I tried very hard to get some pollen shots, and you can see what I managed at right.

I put in a little rule above this because this second part may be kind of tedious and it's not really bee-centric.

They say that every time the beekeeper opens the hive, about 150 bees die, and for a somewhat nonsensical city dweller this is the kind of number that rocks every decision about managing the colonies. We move from "casual interest" towards "morally charged maelstrom" with each decimal point. It's kind of dumb to get stuck on such a factoid: bees will die if they are not managed, too, but I want to be damn well sure I am going in there for a reason. Impulse is not good enough. My curiosity is not good enough. Having something to write about is not good enough.

And hey, if someone out there is scoffing (well, if anyone is out there at all by now) remember, we have only a handful of months to turn 10,000 bees in each colony into at least 40,000 (that would be 80K total for those keeping score), or the winter will kill the ones that I missed. So every one of those girls is a bit of golden precious, besides being beautiful in my eyes.

So here is the odd segue: last night my husband and I and our friend Gerry went to a community Seder (for Passover) in our neighborhood, and at one point in the tradition – a part of which is a retelling of the story of Exodus – we read the bit about when the waves crash down on the Pharoah's army, and the angels in heaven cheer, only to be rebuked by God who says (roughly), "How can you celebrate when my creatures are dying?"

Now, I am no divinity (surprise!) but *NOW* I know what it means to want ALL of a big, well-armed, survival-oriented cast of thousands to make it, to neither be destroyed or destroy another (and yes, bees fight). Who cares who is right? I'd like them all to get the full six weeks of life that is a bee's natural due, and I know they all won't. I'm trying to take care of them, but their best allies are truly sunshine and peace.

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