On these cold winter days, I like to think of our bees snuggled into their winter cluster, keeping cozy around the queen and any winter brood that's in the hive.
The girls aren’t hibernating. They’re nestled into the center of the brood box, shivering their wing muscles to generate heat, keeping the ball of bees warm—the temperature at the center of the winter cluster can range from 45 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit.
A cluster of bees makes plenty of moist, warm air. The air rises to the top of the hive and, without good ventilation, will condense on the cold inner cover and rain down on the bees. That's not so good for bees. Last year we lost a hive from condensation; in spring we found their bodies in a soggy heap on the screened bottom board.
This fall we coerced our building maintenance guy, Dan Strack, to make hive top feeders like the one below. We learned about these from a talk given by passionate beekeeper Serge Labesque, who teaches beekeeping at Santa Rosa Junior College.
The idea is that the moist air produced by the bees will go through the slot in the center, condense on the top of the hive, and fall into the top box, rather than on the clustering bees.
We filled the boxes with lavender. According to Serge, the lavender acts like insulation, helping to keep the bees warm. Because Aurora doesn't have very much honey, we filled plasticware with 2 parts sugar and 1 part water, and some spearmint oil. But Serge says you can pour the syrup directly on the lavender and then the bees can walk on the stems, slurping as they go. That way, no bees go to a sugary death in a pool of syrup.
Serge says, “I use dry lavender because I have it at home. A side benefit of this setup is that, when I open the hive, it smells wonderful.”
Curious bees popped up through the slot immediately!