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Out of all the hymenoterans, Ferrebeekeeper has been looking forward to writing about honey bees. Not only is honey delicious (and the striped workaholic insects strangely endearing), but honey bees have one of the most successful colony systems extant. As noted in a previous post, a hive of honey bees is a conundrum—is it 50,000 souls working together in a city state or is it one living organism? Unfortunately, as one reads through the writings by beekeepers, one realizes that it is not easy to answer this question—or even to write a short essay concerning honey bees. Their societies are too complex to be readily summarized. Writing about a hive of honey bees really is like writing about the myriad affairs of a city-state. The bees forage in different locations, store their produce in different forms, build structures, establish castes, fights wars, and undergo succession crises.
All of that is true during the warm part of the year. As temperatures drop to around 20° Celsius (50° Fahrenheit), things change a great deal within the hive. Honey bees do not hibernate like bears (or like bumblebees which also snuggle down in a little lined den) instead they use honey stores and teamwork to stay warm. Honey bees do not have internal warming mechanisms like mammals, but they have each other and they have powerful wing muscles. The bees cluster together into a ball with the queen at the middle. Worker bees close to the queen shiver their wing muscles and thereby generate heat. Workers at the outside of the ball act as insulation (and benefit from transferred heat). If the ball becomes too hot it expands outward and the space between bees allows heat to escape. If it becomes too cold the bees press inward. Tired workers move towards the outside of the ball where they can be inert whereas cold workers on the outside move towards the inside. You might notice I am only writing about female bees—the workers and the queen—this is because all of the male drone bees are regarded as expendable and are thrown out of the hive to die in the cold as soon as temperatures drop.
In the beginning of the cold season the queen is not laying eggs (broodless) and the temperature within the cluster is about 27 °C (81 °F), however as spring nears a new brood of workers is needed and the interior temperature of the cluster rises to 34 °C (93 °F) in order to make egg-laying possible. Hives with too few bees can not stay warm this way and they perish in cold winters, however adequately large hives with ample honey reserves can survive temperatures which dip deep deep below freezing. Even in large well-provisioned hives there are winter dangers though. Moisture can build up in heavily insulated hives and form icicles which subsequently drip down on the bees in non-freezing weather and chill them (or burden them with fungi). And prolonged deep cold can prove disastrous. The bees congregate around a single honey store when the temperatures are extremely cold and then they spread out and move to another honey deposit when the weather is better. If the weather stays too cold for too long they deplete all of the honey and freeze—inches from abundant supplies of life-giving honey.