Bees and Fire
Smoke has a strange effect on bees. It actually acts to calm them, which is why beekeepers use a smoker when working in the hives. However, too much smoke isn’t necessarily a good thing, as a friend of mine, Lori, found out the last couple of weeks. I asked her to write about her experience…
“On September 9, 2011, multiple lightning strikes started a series of wild fires in my mountain area. I have a single hive of Italian Honey bees who are being kept in a natural habitat of native chaparral, wild flowers, pine trees, sage and oak trees. They also forage from my small apple orchard, black berries, lavender and other bee friendly plants. This is a very strong hive in its 2nd year. I have been filling their in-hive feeder with syrup made of organic evaporated cane juice about once every other week in the last couple of months, due to nectar flow being low.
When smoke filled the area on September 9, I had already harvested a full super of honey earlier that summer, and there was a 2nd full and capped supers on the hive. There was also a 3rd which was partially full, uncapped and unripe honey. My intent was to harvest more of the capped honey very soon, being careful to take only the surplus, so that the bees would have more than enough for the hard winter ahead. I had also planned to store some of the capped frames in my ice chest in the winter to have on hand for extra energy, should the bees need it in the dearth of winter. This has been my method of winter feeding and it has worked very well. Last year, in a very severe winter, they needed 6 extra frames and I could see that there was more than enough to do this again this year.
After the fires were out, and all smoke had subsided, I decided to check on my bees. I went out with my syrup, ready to fill the super, and what I found astounded me. I had expected to find the 2nd super still full and the 3rd super partially capped. Instead, I found the sugar syrup feeder partially full, but half of all the honey was gone! That’s right… the bees had consumed a large amount of honey in a very short time. Although the bees seemed fine with brood rearing going strong and large amounts of pollen readily available, I did notice a dip in overall population of about 25% less bees and even fewer drones. This is not unusual for this time of year, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized, these bees had consumed large amounts of their honey in order to evacuate the hive during the fires. The massive amounts of smoke had alerted them to get away and fuel up on honey! They consumed enough to leave and then when all was safe, made their way back to their home!
I find this truly remarkable and I wanted to share it with you to show how amazing these creatures truly are! I can’t tell you how relieved I am… first, that they survived this terrible ordeal, but also I’m thankful that I didn’t remove the honey before the fire. I had no way of knowing there would be a fire and that the surplus honey would make the difference between their survival and their demise. I believe that God is teaching me through the bees that He is the Maker and Master of all. We are mere observers and learners of His wonderful universe and what a joy it is to acknowledge His majesty through observing them.”
So there you have it. Fire means smoke, and smoke means bees are going to react. In all my emergency preparations, it never occurred to me that the bees would need help even if the fire didn’t reach my area! The smoke alone can be an issue… what a great lesson to know in advance for next time, although I’m not sure there’s much one can do in terms of evacuating the hive. More than once, Lori and I have discussed the fact that we typically have underestimated the need for bees to have plenty of their own honey. They must have food for those times they can’t get out of the hive, whether it’s due to cold, rain, or in this case… smok’in fires!