Like a boorish guest, winter is outstaying its welcome. Its hosts wait with forbearance, their energy reserves running low. This week has been dismal for the returning migrant birds (no flying insects on which to feed), the spring wildflowers (no pollinators, no photosynthesis) and the breaking buds of trees (temperatures have dipped low enough to cause some frost damage).
Bees have retreated to their hives. Inside, they turn honey to heat. The hive’s core stays toasty. In very cold spells, the bees ball up, rotating their positions from the exterior to the interior of the ball, kneading warmth into their gathered mass. But on days that are merely chilly, work continues. Brood is tended, the hive is cleaned and wax is lain down.
Two weeks ago, when winter seemed about to get up and leave, I cleaned up the hives that sit at the bottom of our garden. In doing so, I removed some abandoned “wild” comb from an empty hive box. This is comb that bees constructed without the aid of artificial foundations. These foundations make honey extraction easier for humans, but bees don’t need them.
The comb hung down in a foot-long tongue. It was slightly flexible, wobbling a bit as I moved it. The edges of the individual cells were drawn so thin that they powdered away if I handled them without delicacy.
Held to the sun, the wax glowed, revealing the bee’s careful architecture. Cells on opposite sides of the comb are offset. The centers of cells on one side align precisely with the three-way joins among cells on the opposite side. In this way the whole structure is strengthened.