At the beginning of every winter over the last several years I have vowed I was going to get together with other people more often to maintain my sanity. This year I did a better job than I’ve done in the past. And it’s a good thing; this winter was a hard one, and it’s still going on. It looks like tapping the maple trees is going to wait until next week.
The trouble is getting out requires a tremendous amount of energy this time of year. We have to shovel the driveway, stoops and sidewalks; we have to put on layer upon layer and lace up the heavy boots. Gloves, hats, scarves – we might as well be soldiers marching to defend Stalingrad. But something I read by Hannah Holmes made me feel better about the burden of it all: Those of us in the dark northern latitudes are also battling against millions of years of evolution. Our bodies are hard-wired to put on a few extra pounds, slow down and stay inside during the winter. If our ancestors hadn’t done that they wouldn’t have survived. Before humans could zip to the store and buy pineapples from the tropics, if they were throwing too many root and tuber parties they simply weren’t going to make it till spring.
The other day I was out at one of my beehives watching to see if I could tell if they were still alive (they were) and a guy I didn’t know walked past on the street and stopped to ask about the bees. He asked the number one question I get this year about beehives: “What happens to the bees in the winter?” I hear this from everyone. It leads me to believe I’m correct in remembering this was never covered in high school biology. They don’t hibernate, they don’t go dormant, and they don’t lay eggs that hatch in spring like other insects. Honeybee evolution has come up with a better way. They keep the hive thriving at a size that is just large enough for the community to regulate the warmth in the nest at a temperature that’s fascinatingly close to the one inside the human body. This gives them a huge advantage over other insects because by the time late March rolls around and plants finally start producing pollen and nectar, the honeybees’ community will number in the tens of thousands. They can capitalize on those resources while other insects are barely starting to hatch.
To explain how this works, let me go back to earlier in the year. If you saw the photo of a hive on my previous essay you can see the two boxes that make up the hive body. The boxes have no bottom or top of their own. Now imagine that hollow box with an oval-shaped balloon inside. That roughly describes the shape of the broodnest. Starting in spring and through the summer that “balloon” inflates to take up more room inside the box. The bees consume honey at the outer edge of the oval and feed it to the eggs and larvae within. As the cells are emptied of honey, the queen will lay eggs in an expanding circle and the broodnest gets larger. In the late summer and into autumn the process reverses. The queen slows down. She lays fewer eggs, the oval gets smaller, and the empty cells are filled with honey. This is how the hive puts on weight. If everything goes according to plan, by the time it gets very cold there will be a very small nest at the bottom of the hive surrounded by a thick insulating layer of honey. The bees will then huddle together and eat that honey for energy to vibrate for warmth. Over the course of the winter a cluster of bees about the size of a grapefruit will move its way around and upward through the honey, leaving empty space below.
This winter we’ve seen more than our share of snow and long, deep cold snaps. So far my Russian bees have done a good job of dealing with it. I think if I complained about this winter to some hardy Russians they would just laugh at me. It may seem backwards but a mild winter can sometimes be harder on a hive than a really cold winter. On days when the temperature gets into the fifties (Fahrenheit) the bees are out buzzing around. There’s no nectar or pollen to collect but they sometimes just like to fly. Wouldn’t you if you could? The trouble is the bees are using up energy from their stored honey and if they run out of food before some flowers bloom they can’t just go buy some pineapples.
I’m glad we humans have evolved to the point where I can go to the store for what I need. Right now I have to head out to pick up some red wine. The weatherman has promised this latest cold snap will end by tomorrow and some of the snow will melt. Tonight though, we’re having some friends over. We’ll soldier on. We’ll get through this.