The Apiary as it was in January!!
January seems to be the hostile month of our year and an unlikely one for a hive to become "pregnant". Not only does the beginning of this month have one of the shortest days, but they are also one of the coldest. The bees of the apiary are fully hunkered down illuminated more by the moonlight than the sunlight and soaked in the arctic air that sweeps in from the north and stubbornly takes up residence only occasionally beaten back by a warming gale from the south.
Up until now, every hive in the apiary has been up operating on its most energy efficient mode of existence. Maintaining the center of its cluster at about room temperature conserving its precious winter heating fuel - honey!!.
But the bees that went into winter last fall are getting old and tired. About now, they will be making plans for spring. The will be encouraging the queen to lay eggs ensuring that by spring, there will be a fresh generation to start taking over. Their "pregnancy" will start now.
There are no bears to threaten the hives in January. The electric fence was shut down early last December when the lack of forage forced the bears to retreat to their winter dens. Old man winter is far more effective and discouraging to a bear than the 9,000 volt threat the fence had to offer.
This year, all wintering colonies of bees are restricted to one super as their low profiles can fit below the snow layer and help protect them from the wind. It is the wind that threatens the hives now - not the cold.
This method of honey bee winter management is based on a Canadian winter shelter known as a Quinzhee. The snow, although cold, contains millions of tiny insulating air pockets.
The porosity of the snow allows the bees to breath yet protects them from the 50 or 70 kph prairies winds that whip about the apiary producing wind chills of about -50.
If a hive is breathing hard, a steamy air tube will form between the hive entrance and the surface of the "bee quinzhee"
The apiary gets whipped by churning arctic winds that sculpt the snow and twist the vegetation.
Here a forlorn piece of grass on the periphery of the apiary hangs just above the snow layer where its head has swept it back and forth in response to the gusts of wind that arose during the night.
Only a short distance from the apiary where the bees worked the flowers last summer, this field has experienced the full blast of winter. Here the snow has been pulverized from fluffy snowflakes into tiny grains of ice about the size and shape of sand. The wind has formed dunes that roll across the prairie landscape differing only from the Saharan desert in colour and temperature.
Here a bee hive - no matter how strong it was or how much honey it had or how well insulated it was - would only have a very dubious chance of survival.
But even here, there is a beauty and drama. Fresh snow driven by the wind still retains some of the dendritic structure of a snow flake. This allows the force of the wind to jam the flakes together locking them into solids with interesting shapes.
Here, the hanging lip of snow curling over the crest of a drainage ditch is a physical representation of the mathematical average of the velocity, direction and duration of the wind that formed it. The resulting sculpture give silent witness of how billions of snowflakes followed the form of tumbling surf upon a snowy beach.
In spite that most of the cold weather still lies ahead, the lengthening days will remind the hive that spring is approaching. They will now turn up the thermostat of the hive to nearly 100 F which will sustain their the hive's "pregnancy" allowing the eggs of their queen to develop.
January is the month the bees shift the priority of the hive's resources from merely sustaining themselves to preparing for the future by raising children. The next few months will be critical for the hives - warming the nursery will triple their rate of honey consumption - each one will have to strike its own balance between starving to death before the flowers bloom again and having a young work force ready to take advantage of the spring harvest of pollen.
Each hive will arrive at their own decision and there is nothing the beekeeper can do about it. Each hive will have to live or die by the timing of their "pregnancy".