Saturday, January 21, 2012

Winter Bees

Western PA was hit with our first big snow storm of the winter last night.  The apiary is buried under about six inches of snow.  We often get asked how bees get through the winter, especially since honey bees don't sleep, they don't hibernate and they don't fly around when the temperatures are below 40 degrees.  
So, what do bees do in the winter time?  They cluster. 
As winter’s cold sets in, the worker bees tightly cluster around their queen and vibrate—shiver, really.   Their collective shivering keeps the internal temperature of the hive at a cozy 95 degrees, nearly the same temperature as a normal human body.  The bees move in and out of the cluster so no individual freezes.  They all share the burden.  As the winter progresses, the cluster moves through the hive, munching on the stores of honey they worked so hard to save through the spring, summer and fall. 
A typical colony needs about 60 pounds of honey at minimum to survive the winter.  An experienced beekeeper can lift up a hive from the back to judge the weight and tell if the bees will have enough to eat.  Anything over about 80 pounds is surplus honey that the beekeeper can safely take for herself.  
The job of the winter worker bee is to feed the queen and get the colony through these next frigid months. In the spring and summer, a worker bee will live no more than six weeks.  She literally works herself to death tending to the colony and foraging for nectar and pollen to feed their young and store for the winter.  The winter worker bee, though, can live as long as four to six months—the kind of time a colony needs to survive the vagaries of a Pittsburgh winter.  On a rare winter day when the temperature inches over 40, the bees will break their cluster and take what are called “cleansing flights”; they leave the hive to relieve themselves.  Mostly, though, they shiver and eat their way through winter.  Kind of like the rest of us.

Here's a recipe for Creamy Curry Cauliflower Soup, perfect for a winter's day.  Adapted from a Vegetarian Times recipe (a great source for soup recipes!). All the creaminess comes from the vegetables--it doesn't have even a splash of milk.  The honey is mostly a spice or flavoring here. Serve with bread or corn muffins. And don't forget to cluster!

2 tablespoons olive oil 1 small onion, chopped
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 medium tart apple, peeled, cored and chopped (about 1 cup)
1 tablespoon curry powder
1 clove of garlic
1 large head cauliflower, chopped (about 6 cups)
4 cups low-sodium vegetable broth (or, if you're not vegetarian, chicken broth)
1 - 2 tablespoons honey, plus more for a drizzling.
1 teaspoon vinegar (cider, rice wine, white wine)
salt and pepper to taste

Saute onion in olive oil until soft and golden in a stock pan. Add apples, curry powder and garlic and cook until curry powder is fragrant and apples soften a bit.  Add cauliflower and broth, bring just to a boil.  Lower heat, cover and simmer for about 20 minutes or until the cauliflower and apple are very soft.  Let the soup sit for about 20 minutes for the flavors to meld.  Blend until smooth. Stir in the honey and vinegar.  Taste and add salt and pepper as needed.


  1. I think I need to move into a 95* bee hive for the winter ;)

    Your soup looks delicious! I think the honey sounds like a great addition!

    -Alexandra Smith

  2. Thanks for the note, Alexandra! I don't know if I'd want to spend the winter clustered with a bunch of bugs with stingers, but the bees do remind me that snuggling is a good way to stay warm. :)