Video of a Winter Cluster

UPDATE (March 02/11): See Adding Pollen Patties for a better view of a winter cluster.

Winter Hive
The weather has been mild and dank in St. John’s, Newfoundland, since November, but winter is shifting into a higher gear now. The winds are picking up and the temperatures are taking a dip. It was only about -5°C today, though the wind chill factor made it feel like -20°C. (American readers can convert that to the antiquated, nonsensical Fahrenheit scale by typing “-20 C in F” in Google. Get with the 21st century USA!) It was the first relative cold spell the bees have had to deal with this winter and I was curious how they would react. I’ve read contradictory stories about the behaviour of clustering bees over the winter. Some clusters start at the bottom of the hive and move up as winter progresses. Others move to the top only on really cold days when they can use the extra bit of heat that may rise to the top of the hive. And some clusters are all over the place. So I wanted to see what my bees were doing. And what I saw when I shone my flash light into the upper entrance was pretty darn cool, at least for a first-timer like me. It doesn’t matter how boring it is, if I haven’t seen it before, I’m thrilled. So here’s a boring video of something that thrilled me:

What you can’t see in the video is the actual number of bees on the outer cluster near the top of the hive. It’s like the scene in Aliens when Hicks shines a flash light inside the drop-down ceiling to discover it’s full of crawling aliens coming to get them. I’m not sure if the bees clustering near the top of the hive this early in the winter is a sign that they’re running low on honey, or if it’s normal behaviour. They’re probably fine, though.

I’ll lift the hives soon. If they’re light, I’ll put some candy/pollen paddies on top of the frames to get them through the rest of the winter. But I think they’re okay.

PHOTOS NOTE (OCTOBER 2015): The photos in this post may not display properly because they were uploaded through Google’s Picasa online photo album service, a service I no longer use because certain updates create more work for me instead of streamlining the process. I will eventually replace the photos with ones hosted on the Mud Songs server. This note will disappear when (or if) that happens.

19 thoughts on “Video of a Winter Cluster

  1. What a cool video–not boring at all! It reminds me why I love honey bees so much. I’ll be checking back; I would like to know more about bee behavior at low temperatures. Your colony certainly seems okay with it.

  2. Welcome Rusty,

    I did some reading over the holidays about honeybee behaviour in colder climates. Apparently, cold-climate breeds have more dramatic reactions to changes in temperature. I was alarmed by some of the behaviours this past fall (at least in one hive), but I’m learning to relax as I learn, for instance, that certain cold-climate honeybees will shut down drastically in the early fall and survive the winter with a relatively small cluster and light honey stores. The colonies supposedly come to life in the spring just as quick as they shut down in the fall. It’s all new to me. I’m not sure what to expect.

    What I’ve observed in my hives is probably normal behaviour and they’re probably doing fine. My main concern now is that they do seem to be clustering at the top of the hive — which makes me wonder if they’re running out of honey. It’s also late January now, so it’s possible the queen may have laid some brood and the cluster is on top because that’s where the brood is.

    But I’m not sure about any of it. I wish the hives were made of glass so I could see exactly what’s going on.

    I’ve read your website from time to time, by the way. It’s good to read from someone who knows what they’re talking about. The more I learn, the baffled more I become. But I’m getting there. The most valuable learning, I’m sure, will come from experience.

  3. I just recently wrote about bees clustering at the top of the hive in this post: So it kind of worries me that your bees are up there. On the other hand, your video shows feisty-looking bees acting well-fed and happy. Hungry bees would be slow and lethargic. So I’m a bit confused.

  4. On the other hand, your video shows feisty-looking bees acting well-fed and happy. Hungry bees would be slow and lethargic. So I’m a bit confused.

    Yeah, join the club. Just when I think I know what’s going on, the state of confusion settles in again. I’m not sure what’s happening with my bees. I don’t think it’s anything too bad, but I’ll probably give them some candy this week just to play it safe.

    I’ll check out your post too.

  5. Rusty, you mentioned in your post: “More bees covering more area are more likely to run into the food stores than small, compact clusters.

    My cold-climate bees supposedly winter in small, compact clusters and don’t consume as much honey as, say, Italians would. But I’m surprised to see them up on top so early on in the winter. I’m going to cook up some candy this weekend and put it in both of my hives as soon as weather permits — just to be safe.

    I would rather not even touch the hives until mid or late February. I would like to see how well they do on their own. But at this point in the game, I only have two hives and I don’t want to risk losing either one of them. So I’m pretty sure they’ll get some candy soon and the pollen paddies around mid-February or March.

  6. I’m curious about whether they have any stores. Let me know if you find out–you know, later when it’s warmer.

    Now another question: One of your header photos shows three bees carrying very white pollen. I have an on-going discussion about white pollen with another beekeeper here in Washington. It seems the white stuff is relatively rare here. Are those your bees? If so, do you know what pollen they are carrying? So interesting.

  7. All the photos that show up in the header are of my bees. More photos on my Picasa page.

    I noticed the white pollen too and even rode my bike around my neighbourhood streets (I don’t live in the country) to see if I could find a tree with white flowers and tons of honeybees on it — and I did. I just can’t remember the name of the tree. It was a huge bush-like tree in front of someone’s yard, extremely fragrant small white flowers. I’ll have to ask them about it this year.

    The only other source for white pollen that I could find came from Japanese Knotweed. That stuff is over-taking the natural grasses and bushes around here with a vengence, and its flowers are full of thick white pollen.

  8. What is the color of Mock orange pollen. Could that be it?

    On a side note Phil. I was out checking on the hive just before sundown. Boy are those girls feisty now. As the snow was crunching a couple of bees flew out and the cold got the best of one. I picked it up and put it in the top entrance. Then about another came out buzzing. That’s when I decided to get out of there. Like yourself Phil my bees are full of vigor and in late November you could look into the hive and see capped comb. I figured added the cany board would sooth those bees. Now there are more defensive then ever. Also I found a few dead bees on the snow about 30 feet away from the hive. There was 12 outside today and then the few kamikazes between the hive and the house.

  9. What is the color of Mock orange pollen. Could that be it?

    I had to Google Mock orange. You know your trees, Jeff. I’m not sure if that was the big bush I saw full of honeybees. I’ll check it out again this summer. The photo of the bees with the white pollen was taken in August.

    I sure hope my two colonies survive the winter. I would love to see them dig into these blossoms behind and around my house. These flowers are white, blossoming for about two weeks in June.

    From Honeybee Paradise

    One of the worst things about last year was knowing in December that I wanted honyebees but not being able to get them until mid-July, and then I had to watch all the blossoms bloom all spring with no honeybees.

  10. Boy are those girls feisty now. As the snow was crunching a couple of bees flew out… Then.. another came out buzzing. That’s when I decided to get out of there… I figured added the candy board would sooth those bees. Now there are more defensive then ever.

    Well, that’s better than being weak and lethargic. I guess they’re just protecting their newfound food source. I’d leave them alone for awhile.

  11. This spring we will evaluate the additional nectar with all those spring flowers. This is just one of the down sides of bee keeping in newfoundland. I think if I get some honey this year I plan to leave some capped to get the bees started the following spring.

  12. I think if I get some honey this year I plan to leave some capped to get the bees started the following spring.

    Good idea.

    My plan is: I don’t know what I’m going to do. Getting our bees and then watching them do their thing all summer and then into the fall — that’s only the first phase of our beekeeping education. Getting the bees through the winter and into the spring without half of them dying off or swarming — that’s phase two. It’s uncharted territory.

    I could say I have a plan. I do have a few ideas on how to checker board the frames to prevent swarming in the spring, and I know how I want to expand my nucs this year (all foundationless, no external feeders). But generally my plan, if I have one, is to keep my nose out of the hives as much as possible, relax and stay out of the way of the bees so they can take care of themselves.

    The bees have a lot to teach me, and I just want to go with it and not panic. That’s about as good as it gets for me right now.

    I stuck a flash light in the upper entrances of both hives again. They still seem alive and well, but the clusters are at the top now, that’s for sure.

    I gotta feeling the bees will do fine if I just leave them alone. There’s no way they can be out of honey this soon. If I had more hives I could experiment with, I’d just leave them be.

    But, like I said before, it’s too early in the game to risk it. I’m making some candy for them tonight. Basically sugar, water, apple cigar vinegar and vanilla. I bought corn syrup and cream of tartar, but I’ve decided not to follow that recipe.

  13. The recipe I sent you seemed to work well for me.

    Let me know how you made out? Did you get a thermometer yet?

  14. Yup, I picked up a thermometer yesterday, borrowed from a friend.

    I haven’t made the candy yet because it’s been too cold to open the hives. But it’s supposed to go above freezing tomorrow. So the plan is to cook it up tonight and put the candy cakes on the hives tomorrow.

    I’m going to more or less follow the recipe you used. I might add a touch of vanilla, though. I was looking for Anise oil, which I read on The Honey Bee Suite website is good for the bees and they love it, but I don’t know where to begin looking for it (it’s not at the grocery store).

    I was checking the bees again yesterday. It was cold and the snow was piled up a bit. But there they were, huddled at the top. It’s impressive.

  15. Thanks Rusty. I have to do more reading on essential oils, but anise looks like a good one. I’ll probably add a few drops to the sugar syrup for my nucs this spring (or summer, whenever I’m able to get the nucs).

    I’m cooking up the candy in a couple hours. Nearly 7kg of sugar will dissolve in less than a litre of water. This I have to see.

  16. keep me posted on the essential oils. I may have to follow up on that too.

    On a side note I sent an email to David Burns from Long Lane Honey Bees and he sent me a response regarding spring/early summer splits.

    I had a few ideas and I wanted to ask he. Looks like we are in business.I’m planning to a half inch inner cover with screens on both sides to take 4 frames of brood/honey/pollen and a frame feeder to put either in a nuc box or standard super. The heat from the bottom hive rises up from below to keep the nuc warm. But the screen on each side prevents the bees from exchanging pheromones. So the old queen below can stay their while the new queen can be caged above and the nuce bees will get accomsted to her and will accept her as their new queen. So feed both colonies in early sping. Once the nuc si big enough I’ll move it to a new spot for 2 weeks. Then it can be moved back to the yard with teh original hive.

    Anyway I’ll make you up one of these inner covers if you are interested.

  17. Anyway I’ll make you up one of these inner covers if you are interested.

    I’m interested, though I’m not exactly sure what it is. I couldn’t picture precisely what you were describing. I need pictures.

    Sounds like you have some interesting ideas though.

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