Saturday afternoon while still sunny, I grabbed a beer, and I sat my bench by the hives laid my Saint bernard mix, "Clifford," at my feet to watch the bees taking their scouting and learning flights to familiarize themselves with their new neighborhood. It really is amazing to me how quickly they learn. They were installed about noon, and by 4pm they were flying in and out and a little more distance with each flight; and someone had found the crocus pollen in the front yard and communicated that back in the hive. So here came some of the girls with loaded pollen sacs of a orangey yellowy (almost egg yolk colored pollen); a bit had dropped off at the entry to the hive. These were all good signs that things were setting up nicely in the hive.
The hardest part for a beekeeper post installation is to wait to see if things will go well. New beekeepers especially often "jump the gun" to take a look inside. When it's cold, you really do not want to open the hive and lose the warm air they have generated, and yet you are concerned that they have enough to eat to keep the hive warm. (An amazing fact is that they can keep the hive at 93F all winter long as long as they have enough honey or feed to make energy and keep going. They form a cluster around their queen and vibrate their thoraces -plural of thorax- to generate heat. The thorax is the middle section of the insect to which the 6 legs and in this case 2 pairs of wings attach.)
You also don't want to risk losing the queen you have purchased and placed with her attendants in the queen cage in the hive. The workers, who until recently were all strangers, are getting acquainted with each other and with her pheromone (a hormone like substance to communicate who is who, and that she is queen); if she leaves the cage too soon, she will not be recognized and will be stung to death. Then you have no queen! Not good. But, if all goes well, the attendants to her in the cage with her will slowly eat their ways out of the sugar plug, feeding her along the way; she cannot feed herself-she is just made for egg laying-and the attendants eating the candy plug creates an opening. After 4-7 days, she is released. She just walks out of the opening into her new royal realm. The attendants sadly will be stung to death as they exit, but she will be accepted as her royal majesty if all goes well.
So, although Saturday was a gorgeous spring day-sunny and in the mid-50's, Saturday night turned cold; I watched the temperature drop to 25F and prayed that my girls had drunk enough sugar syrup to have enough energy to vibrate their thoraces all night and keep her warm (and themselves within their cluster.) As I watched the mercury drop, I remembered a few tricks one can employ to keep the hive warmer. 1) On the back of the hive is a slot through which you can insert a corrugated IPM mite drop bottom board over the screen bottom board. This would provide some insulation and prevent their having to work so hard to heat the space. 2) You can prop the back of the hive top cover slightly open with twigs to allow ventilation, so that as the workers vibrate their little thoraces, the warmth they create will rise to the top, but humidity will escape and not condense and drop back down on the clustered queen. A cold moist hive is a terrible thing. Fungus and disease can occur as well as chalk brood (frozen eggs and larvae).
Sunday was cold and overcast. But, at midday it was around 44F, and these girls must not read the insect and bee specific literature. (They are not supposed to be able to fly until it hits about 50F. But, here they were, fewer in number, but out scouting about for short flights, and then tucking back into the warm hive. A good sign. They were also "bringing out their dead." This reminds me of the Monty Python movie scene where the woman says, "I'm not dead yet!" Well, if you are a vibrator on the outside of the cluster of bees trying to keep her majesty warm in the center, you are likely to be one of the first to go in this valiant act of self sacrifice. Recall this is a socialist society. It's not about the individual here (unless you are queen, and it's good to be queen!); it's about the society as a whole. A loss of a few workers is ok. (This is also very hard for some beekeepers to accept; especially new beekeepers. I know as I go through my hives, I can't help but kill a few while moving frames and lids to check overall health, etc. I always apologize, "oh, I'm so sorry." And, when one stings me, I say, "now why did you go and do that. You know you are going to die now." It's hard to overcome our Westernized individualistic mentality. Anyway, I digress....
So, Monday arrived and what a surprise! It brought a late unusual March snow! (5 inches). Will my bee girls survive? Will the queen survive? I really didn't know. Will the baggy of sugar syrup freeze? Is it dense enough to freeze at a lower temperature than 32F? I sure hope so. Snow lay around the hives and about all the vegetation. It was the heavy wet snow, and I figured this might be good for insulation. The temperature hovered from about 31F to 37F. "Welcome to Maryland in March, girls!," I said. "We're not in Georgia anymore!, " I heard them shiver in reply!
I thought of one more thing I might do to help them out. In winter months as established hives get low on honey, beekeepers sometimes will feed their hives fondant. Fondant looks like very thick white cake icing (but is not! don't use cake icing!) and is mostly made of sugar. You can homemake this, google a recipe on the web, but I had purchased some last fall and had frozen it; so I thawed it out now.
As soon as it was thawed, I placed two big globs in each of the hives. I only opened each hive momentarily. Don't want to tax the bees or lose the warmth they have generated. It did feel warm. Good, I thought. Now, we wait to open until Saturday to see if the queen is out and all is well. Ugh...I hate the waiting.