Winter bee-line

T.S. Eliot was wrong: February is the cruelest month, not April.

When one of our sister bee hives in the Yorktown churchyard was opened recently the entire colony was found to have died. Several thousand bees were strewn across the frames and base. Our local expert warned that this is a tough time of year for bees, which can starve to death despite having honey in the comb or kindly keepers who leave candy for them. Sometimes, he told us, they starve within inches of plenty.

This sad news put me in mind of a teacher’s favorite story when I was a fifth grader in England. A hundred year ago, Captain Robert Scott leading a small band of Antarctic explorers was returning to base feeling dejected after being beaten to the Pole by Norwegians.  During a ferocious blizzard they froze to death just eleven miles from the safety of a depot, their bodies still entombed to this day in the Ross ice shelf which is slowly migrating to the sea.

I always thought Captain Oates played a supremely heroic role before their final camp because he walked out to his death so that his frost-bitten legs wouldn’t slow the party down. That’s another reminder of the life of a bee, who lays down her life for the colony with one, and only one, sting. Altruism in nature was something that used to stick in the gullet of evolutionary theorists like a fish bone, but it’s not such a mystery in bees because they are genetically-related. Self-sacrifice makes genetic sense if it helps siblings to survive. But to think that each bee is as much an individual as, say, a dog or ourselves is misleading: a hive is more like a superorganism with different castes of bees playing roles equivalent to the organs and limbs of our bodies. Put that way, I don’t feel so guilty when I accidentally squash a few of the ‘girls’ putting the lid back on their hive.

Perhaps self-sacrifice in bees is more like the shedding of a lizard’s tail after it is grabbed by a predator. On second thoughts, that’s not such a brilliant analogy.  Bees are not genetically identical, like clones, because although they are all derived from the same bag of genes in the queen the genes have been reassorted by meiosis in eggs.

Bee up close

Our surviving hive is thriving (the other was mysteriously evacuated last September). On warm days foragers leave for polligrinations over several square miles of territory. They return with payloads of nectar and golden sacs of pollen stuck to their body, which are passed to nursemaid bees to feed the larvae. Even in mid-winter they find flowers when I can’t see any.

While most insects and other cold-blooded creatures hibernate to conserve energy, bees are busy whenever the temperature rises above the forties. It’s imperative! Already sensing the longer days, they have started to expand their colony in a race against time. The hive needs more workers; it must raise numbers from a few thousand to forty thousand or more so it can manufacture enough honey to store for next winter (and for us!).

The queen lays up to 1,000 eggs per day, about one every minute. Like poker played for high stakes, she goes all in. It takes 42 days for an egg to grow into an active worker, so she is fully employed now preparing the hive for the large flows of nectar starting in March. Now when I see a hive standing cold and silent I know the heart of the superorganism is beating fast while almost everything around is in the deep sleep of winter.


 Knight Bruce has lent me a grand observatory hive; and I am going to watch.

Letter from Charles Darwin to his son, Willy (May 26, 1858)

Next Post: A Dog’s Dinner

Categorized as Bee-line Tagged

By Roger Gosden

A British and American scientist specializing in reproduction & embryology whose career spanned from Cambridge to Cornell's Weill Medical College in NYC. He married Lucinda Veeck, the embryologist for the first successful IVF team in America. They retired to Virginia, where he became a master naturalist and writer affiliated with William & Mary.

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