FREDERIC, Wis., November 19, 2011 — When old man winter comes visiting for months on end and lays a white blanket upon the earth, sensible people go inside their comfy homes and turn on the heat.
So do honeybees.
Unlike their other neighbors the bear, bees do not hibernate during winter. While the bears are snoring, the bees are shimmying.
In late fall, when Mother Nature turns things cold, the bees start to dance and turn up the heat. This dance is not like the Jitter Bug, which entails a lot of hip throwing of your partner over, under and around. The bee dance is more akin to the Funky Chicken, which entails quick flapping of the arms and vibrating the wing muscles.
It’s this bio movement that generates body heat, both for people and bees. Vibrating and gyrating can put out serious BTUs. Think how hot it gets grooving in a dance hall. So when the outside temperature gets cool, the bees cluster in the hive and start to rock n’ roll.
During the cold, the colony gathers and forms an elongated ball around the most important person in their society, the queen. The queen is king, so to speak, in the bee colony. For without her, the bees are doomed. She is the one who lays hundreds of thousands of eggs during her reign and thus keeps the society going generation after generation.
As the temperature dips to the mid 50s above zero, the bees huddle up and stick her in the middle and start their rendition of Good Vibrations. They keep the queen warm and happy all winter by shimmying their little thorax flight muscles, as morphology will tell you. The vibrating cluster generates sufficient heat to keep her majesty and her attendees alive and comfortable in the middle of things.
But what about those bees on the outside of the cluster, where the cold is nipping at their six little legs and tarsal claws? Well, these outsiders are in peril.
The bees exposed on the outside of the cluster are likely dealing with some frost issues. So to prevent total freezer burn, the warm bees inside the cluster graciously trade places with their half-frozen counterparts on the outside.
The cluster literally rotates in and out, round and round, around the clock. The cold ones outside come in, or are pushed in if they’re too stiff to move, and then thaw out. And the warm ones inside then head out and chill out. The orbit goes on throughout the entire cold season.
This winter game plan is quite effective. Honeybees can keep their immediate surroundings in the mid-50s range—even if it’s minus 50 degrees outside! With 20,000 strong bees jamming, they can turn on the heat.At peak season, a hive can bump up to 80,000 bees. But during the cooler months, they shrink the population to preserve their food supply.
In mid-January when the queen starts laying brood again, they will bump up the core temperature into the 90s. The kids like it hot. The tiny bees can perform this humongous feat of temperature control under two conditions. If the colony is healthy and their food supply is plenty, then they can keep the heater going. If they are weak or the fuel runs out, nature’s bitter cold freezes their fate.
But fate can be artfully modified by the beekeeper. Just as people have learned to live from winter to spring in modest comfort, beekeepers have experimented with heating devises to bring a little manufactured warmth to our friends.
Old-time beekeepers recall many different heating devises. They tell of wrapping their hives with tar paper, which is dark and draws heat from the sun. Then there was the move of moving their colonies into the root cellar or basement during winter. But if it got too warm, the bees would think it was springtime and start jetting out of the hives. Things get complicated with a million bees flying around in the basement.
Another warming technique was to install a low-watt light bulb under the hive. The heat rises and warms the shimmying cluster. But Thomas Edison’s invention burns out too fast running day and night.
Lots of great inventions are born in inspiration in a home workshop or garage. And a semi-proven heating devise for bees may be in this illustrious category, with a little help from modern plumbing science.
Johnny Park, who owns the greatest, and only hardware store in Frederic, Wis., and yours truly, may have invented the answer. All beekeepers are welcome to try this idea inside their hives, placed under the bottom frames.
We embedded a common plumbing heating tape, which is used to warm water pipes into a baking pan full of sand. The commercial heat tape comes with a regulator, which turns on at 32 degrees and off at 38 degrees. The tape heats the sand, which radiates dry heat around the inside of the hive. This dry heat also helps keep the bees dry as they produce a good amount of sweat in all that shimmying.
The tape can withstand extreme cold and will not burn out. Plus, it’s cost effective. It costs about $25 to put together and about $3 a month to run.
I heated two hives last year. Both cruised through winter averaging 65 degrees. I’m doing an encore performance this year, with the first snow fall today.
And with that, stay warm all this winter—even if you have to do the Funky Chicken!
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