After lunch I steeled myself to go and check the bees. I did not really feel like fiddling about with beehives. It was cold, and it would have been much better not to disturb them. And I'd rather not have gone out in the cold myself. But just as I went down with flu I had realised that I'd left their food stores set up wrong, and then a few days ago an email arrived from the government national bee unit warning of the risks of starvation. Apparently the unseasonably mild weather before Christmas might have led them to use more energy than they normally would have, and starving colonies had been reported.
I was really pleased with myself in the autumn that I remembered to fit the mouse guards to the hives in good time, and after all these years keeping bees you'd think I'd know how to set up their winter stores. The problem came because this year I decided to allow most of the hives to keep some of their own honey for winter. I'd already harvested as much as I was likely to use, give away, or sell, and last year when I took the last almost full super of honey off each hive at the end of the season and extracted it, the honey fermented in storage. That seemed a waste, so this year I left the supers on longer for the bees to make sure the honey was absolutely ripe and finished, and then I realised that the bees had already been on the ivy. Ivy honey tastes absolutely disgusting, at least to humans, so in the end I decided it was better to leave it with them than take it off and then laboriously feed them sugar syrup instead. Their own honey is probably more nutritious anyway.
What I failed to do was think through how they were going to get to it. In the summer beehive the queen bee lives in the big brood box at the bottom of the hive, laying eggs, and the worker bees store any surplus honey in the supers above. The queen is prevented from going up into the supers to lay eggs by a metal frame cunningly designed so that the smaller worker bees can crawl through it but the larger queen can't. In the depths of winter the bees clump together for warmth, and the whole clump gradually moves over the frames inside the hive, eating the honey (or sugar) stored there. If the only food left is above the metal frame the cluster of bees will go to it, and the queen will be left behind down in the brood box, where she will starve if she doesn't freeze first. I should have taken the metal frames out.
This gently preyed on my mind once I didn't feel so ill that I didn't care. Then the bee unit email niggled away, until I thought that now I was not so ill I had better go and take a very quick look, remove the queen excluders, and feed any colonies that were light on stores. The prospect did not fill me with delight, nor having to unscramble the results in a couple of months time if the queen had moved upstairs and started laying. But I had weeks to work out how I was going to do that, whereas the bees could be dying of cold or starvation by tomorrow morning, so wearing a thermal hat under the hood of my bee suit I set off, armed with hive tool, ekes, bags of fondant and a pair of scissors. I didn't bother with a smoker. I didn't think the bees would be that keen to come out, and I wasn't planning on keeping the hives open for longer than about three seconds.
The good news was that all the hives had live bees in, and every cluster was still down in the brood box. Of course I can't be sure that they've been down there all the time, and I won't know if I still have a live queen in every colony until the spring, but my hunch is that they have been living on the stores in the brood boxes and have not abandoned their queens. One cluster was right at the top of the frames and began to come out to see what was happening as I disturbed the hive, which was a nuisance. I didn't want them catching cold, and they were in the way as I tried to clear lumps of brace comb so that the super would sit directly on top of the brood box without leaving a draughty crack between the two. Still, perhaps they were poised to move upstairs and perhaps my tardy intervention has saved their queen. Who knows? Perhaps I have squashed her.
Every hive felt heavy enough. I didn't feel I should ignore the government advice, but I wonder whether bees really waste their stores moving around to no good purpose in mild winter spells. Bees have been perfecting the art of how to be bees for tens of millions of years. Their foraging behaviour in the field is so efficient that it has been used as the basis for modelling the optimal routes for delivery vans. Does such a marvellously efficient creature use extra energy to no good purpose fiddling around just because it is a nice day, or do they work out there's precious little forage to be had and that it's still dark most of the time and stay put in their clusters?