The winter cluster of a honey bee colony, guest post from Kent Williams

A few days ago I received the most recent issue of Kent Williams’ Lake Barkley Beekeepers Association newsletter. This issue contained a very informative and well written account of the dynamics of the winter cluster of a honey bee colony. We’re almost to the time of year when I start getting the annual round of “why did my bees die” questions, and the answer always includes a discussion of the complexities of the winter cluster. Kent has graciously agreed to allow me to reprint his article in my column. We’ll jump right into his article here, but you can read more about Kent at the end of the column.

Hello again, and welcome to the February edition of the LBBA newsletter. The calendar may indicate winter, but the maple trees on our place – and the honeybees that are working the maple blooms – believe spring has arrived. Our weather in western KY sometimes seems to mimic Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates – you never know what you’re going to get. Having lived here virtually all of my 52 years, my advice to bees and beekeepers alike is to not put the long-handles into storage just yet. The warm weather we have enjoyed for much of January and the beginning of February has allowed the bees to keep a loose cluster and both move within the hive to access food-stores and take advantage of any efforts made by beekeepers to provide supplemental feed for the colony. The (supposedly) ideal temperature for an overwintering colony is 45 degrees f. At this temperature, the bees will remain in a loose, but solid cluster, which will move throughout the hive to access food stores. As temperatures drop, there is a corresponding constriction, or compaction of the cluster. With this compaction, the ability to move throughout the hive as a cluster diminishes until the point of immobility is reached. Bees can always move within the cluster, but the cluster as a whole is basically immobile. The temperature at which this immobility occurs varies from hive to hive due to location of the hive (behind a windbreak, in full sun, in shaded areas, etc.) and size of the cluster. The temperature at which a cluster becomes stationary is, however, not as cold as we might think. Honeybees are cold-blooded creatures, so think of a bee in the same sense as, say, a toad. By the time the temperature drops into the lower 30’s, cold-blooded creatures – whether toad or honeybee – are not going to be very active. All of this malarkey is a preface to the main point of this editorial; throughout my time as a bee-haver, and bee-keeper, most losses of previously healthy colonies occurred in late February or early to mid-March. The scenario leading to colony loss varies somewhat, but generally has to do with the colony breaking cluster on a warm day, then re-clustering away from food stores just prior to a sudden cold snap. This re-clustering, more often than not, is due to the queen becoming active and laying eggs in a location not adjacent to stored food. The cluster tends to favor brood at all costs, thus it settles in a position that is untenable in cold weather. So what is the remedy for this situation? Move south? Insulate the colony? These might be ideas that will solve the problem, but with their own baggage of cost and/or labor. The solution is to keep the cluster in contact with food; the implementation of this solution is problematic. This is because it is not easy to force a bug to act right. They don’t understand English; don’t respond to threats, whether verbal or physical; and in fact, do not care what we humans think of their choices. What am I doing to help alleviate this dilemma? We spent this past week making patties and placing them on top of the cluster in hives with little food stored, and directly above the capped honey in hives that have stored food. Placing these patties on hives creates another issue – raccoons. It seems that raccoons are also highly attracted to essential oils and pollen substitute. The “raccoon-friendly” solution to this problem is to nail the lids on the hives, or place a weight on the lid (a brick is not sufficient). The “non-raccoon-friendly” solution??? If you have to ask you probably were not raised in Western Kentucky, and will not like the answer.

The reality of the late-winter loss problem is unsettling to me, in that there is no 100% certain solution. As with some other areas of beekeeping, there is not a formula for success. It is not like a mathematic equation, where the same inputs always bring the same results. Management that is carried out as a standard in a beekeeping operation, whether the operation is two hives or two thousand, seldom yields standard results. One hive thrives; one hive survives; and one hive dies. These are not actual percentages for a beeyard, but are meant to illustrate the futility of trying to manage a colony of honeybees as if it is a gearbox of timed cogs. This should also illustrate the need for a contingency plan – plan “b.”  If you come out of winter with a 30% loss, what then? Split strong hives to make up losses; purchase nucs or packages; catch swarms, etc. to fill empty equipment. If you are unsure of how to make up losses from your own bees, learn. There are several beekeeping courses available this spring, attend one or more.
Kent Williams

About Kent Williams:
I first met Kent at a beekeeping meeting many years ago, shortly after taking the position of Kentucky State Apiarist, and did not realize at the time that it was the beginning of what was to develop into a long friendship. Kent was (and still is) an imposing figure, bespectacled with a dark, full beard. I recall my first conversation with Kent, though I cannot remember where that meeting occurred. We talked about various different subspecies of honey bees and the advantages of certain selected traits. Kent knew far more than I on the subject, and I was to learn that he knew more about many aspects of beekeeping. Kent presently runs several hundred hives of bees in Kentucky and Mississippi, rears and sells queens, is the longtime president of the Lake Barkley Beekeepers Association in Western Kentucky, past president of the Kentucky State Beekeepers Association and the Eastern Apiculture Society, and is a very popular speaker throughout the Eastern United States. Kent does get around. You can hear him at many of the Kentucky beekeeping schools being held this year.


4 responses to “The winter cluster of a honey bee colony, guest post from Kent Williams

  1. Great article, these next two months always make me nervous!

  2. Robert Henderson

    As I know there are many different recipes for patties did Kent share his? Would like to have it.

  3. Charles Caldwell

    Great article Thank you

  4. Pingback: Spring IS here – right?? | Phil Craft Hive Craft