THE MAGNIFICENT WINTER CLUSTER
Making heat makes bees hungry. It’s important the honey be nearby. Colonies can die if the honey is too far from the cluster. Many beekeepers have opened hives in spring and found colonies who died of starvation despite full honey stores just two combs away. If it’s too cold, the bees won’t cross into the cold zone to find more food.
In winter weather the bees rotate from the warm inner cluster to the cold outer cluster and back. The colony needs plenty of bees so nobody is overworked. If there are too few bees going in to winter, they can’t maintain the steady warmth the cluster needs. Those overworked bees wear themselves out and die.
Going into winter I’m always conscious of the size of my hives. Sometimes a late swarm won’t have enough time to raise enough bodies to make a good size cluster and store up a honey reserve. This is a serious problem and needs to be addressed before winter sets in.
One way of addressing the problem is to let every hive live or die on its own merits. That’s survival of the fittest and in this era of weak bees there’s much to be said for that. As a treatment-free beekeeper, I know that some hives won’t make it on their own.
Though I tend to be a hands-off beekeeper, I sometimes get very hands-on when a hive is almost-but-not-quite big enough and I know it won’t survive on its own. In that situation I combine two hives to make an even stronger one.
While many beekeepers split hives in spring to make more, I have done the opposite, merging two hives to make one strong hive. Two years ago in the fall I merged a medium hive with a larger hive because a big hive gives everyone a better chance at surviving. Turning two hives into one sounds counter-productive, doesn’t it?
The magic of that is in the numbers: Twice as many bees in a colony makes that colony three times more likely to survive. The benefit of merging is that the bigger population of bees means a bigger cluster for better temperature control. The down side is that one of the Queens may not survive the merger though even that’s up for debate. Next year if I do a merger I’ll video it so you can see how it’s done.
I’ve heard tales of hives with an extra Queen. I even saw a secondary Queen in one of my hives once. The primary Queen was the center of attention, but the secondary Queen was still alive and was probably going to stick around awhile longer. She wasn’t a threat and seemed to have taken up her station in the tippy-top of the upper box where she moved among the bees making honey.