Wintering Bees

Among all the insects in the Northern Hemisphere, only honeybees remain warm and active throughout the winter.  Other insects hibernate or leave eggs.  This unique feature of bees is all the more remarkable given that each hive contains tens of thousands of individuals with no central leadership.


Because they are small and have a large surface to size ratio, bees are quite vulnerable to cold, so they wait for the warmest winter days for their quick cleansing flights.  This cautious nature helps them survive winter.  Killer bees from Africa, now well established in Texas, venture out recklessly into the cold, a trait that is not conducive to survival in the north. 


Although summer bees are strong fliers their lifespan is only about 45 days.  Winter bees are fatter, have a different protein profile in their blood, and live about six months.


Sometimes bees shiver to generate heat and stay warm.  This involves simultaneous contractions of the flight muscles, forcing the upstroke and downstroke to pull against each other.  But calories soon become the limiting factor.  If all bees shivered they'd never survive winter on the 100-200 pounds of honey each hive produces. 


Instead, bees cluster in a football-sized mass inside the hive.  The temperature of the outer layer of bees remains about 45 degrees; below this, bees can barely walk and some may even drop off and die.  When the outer bees get cold they force themselves into the cluster, in effect plugging the holes.  Sometimes the cluster gets so tight they can only stick their heads in.  This traps heat produced by the metabolism of the core bees.


In the center of the cluster the bees walk about freely and tend to various hive duties.  During the fall the core temperature of the cluster remains in the low 80's.  Then in late winter when the queen starts laying again the core temperature is raised to about 94 degrees.  Regardless of how cold it is outdoors, the temperature inside the cluster remains constant.


When the core bees become too warm they crawl out.  This creates holes, enlarges the cluster, and releases heat.


One of the most intriguing aspects of this system is the utter lack of communication about temperature.  There are no chemical signals, no messages passed back and forth between inner bees and outer bees.  Instead, each bee simply reacts to its own temperature at any moment.  In this way the entire cluster regulates its core temperature very effectively.


Sometimes we could be instructed from the more instinctual creatures like bees.  Their winter cluster is created by each individual trying to keep warm.  Instead of gorging on stored honey and then shivering alone, each eats enough and then takes a series of positions in the cluster.  Ultimately the group then provides a protective and sustaining effect that is unmatched by anything a solitary bee could do. 


Like the hive, all of us in communities and neighborhoods are members of one another.  The bees all know it.  Some people know it and some don't.


The issue of propriety is illustrated as well.  Although not a common word anymore, this refers to the appropriateness of actions.  A solution is not necessarily right just because it is possible.  While individual bees might conceivably try to meet their needs in other ways, that might mean straying beyond the bounds of propriety and lead to failure in the end because while there is enough honey, there is not enough for each bee to be totally warm at all times.  But each can be sufficiently warm.


It's also a compelling idea that individuals can do things that are good and right, independent of central planning and leadership, as long as standards of propriety are observed.  

Winter 2012