Starving Bees Turn Cannibal
Hugh Coakley keeps bees in Worplesdon. In this month’s notes, he talks about how honeybees will suck the fluids from their own brood to save the colony from starvation.
There is a famous case in 1884 of sailors resorting to cannibalism when shipwrecked. Three sailors and a cabin boy, Richard Parker, took to the lifeboats when their yacht foundered in the southern seas.
After two weeks with no provisions, the cabin boy fell into a coma and the other sailors, in accordance with the ‘custom of the seas’, decided to kill him and eat him to survive.
They were rescued and duly reported their terrible dilemma in the expectation that the ‘custom of the seas’ defence would be accepted.
To cut to the chase, they were convicted of murder and to hang which was later reduced to a prison sentence.
It became a cause celebre in Victorian times and public opinion forced the accepted practise of cannibalism in extremis to be outlawed.
There are no such sensitivities in a beehive.
If you are a bee and you have honey in your hive that you can get at, then no problem.
If you are that same bee and you are running out of honey to eat, then it is a big problem.
There is not much in the way of nectar to gather at this time of year. It is generally too cold to fly anyway
A typical colony will get through about 15kgs (30lbs) of honey through the winter. That’s a lot of honey and it is a race against time. Will the honey last long enough before the spring abundance comes?
The bee cannot store infinite honey to last it whatever the weather throws up. If the weather is unkind and the honey stores run out, then curtains.
It might only be a matter of days but even a couple of days without food is enough to kill off a whole colony. The colonies are building up now so the amount of food needed to keep it going is also increasing.
In the last resort, the bees will suck the body fluids from their own brood in an attempt to save the colony. The brood when hatched cannot survive without the colony to support it. So, like the sailors in 1884, they eat the youngest.
I have once seen a starving colony and it is a sad and miserable sight. Dead bees litter the bottom of the hive. The bees still alive are slow moving and shivery and they will often crawl into the empty cells, presumably looking for food.
It can also happen if the bees cluster in the wrong place, even when the beekeeper has harvested honey wisely . Bees can also starve in the summer, in the ‘June gap’ between spring and height of summer, when forage is scarce.
So, my bees went into the winter with plenty of stores. I also topped them up with some baker’s fondant recently. But I still cannot guarantee that they will have survived the winter.
Curated from: Guildford Dragon