In late November seven years ago, a distant neighbor cut down an alder tree that was hanging over his driveway. Unbeknownst to him, that tree was a bee tree – home to a feral honeybee hive. The top of the tree broke off when the tree hit the ground, leaving an eleven foot section where the colony lived, but their honey stores got smashed apart and all the honey lay on the ground, melting in the rain. The bees were wet, chilled and hungry. November is a bad time for a move.
The tree was so punky I wondered if it might fall apart around them. Once home, Joseph and I chained the one-ton trunk to a concrete post to keep it upright. Joseph made a latched cover so I could open it to put honeycomb inside and keep them fed all winter.
Bee Tree Hives Stay Alert
Despite the winter cold, this bee tree hive was always awake and alert when I opened the feeding station. The tree’s four-inch thick walls provided solid insulation and let them keep the interior at 95 degrees, even during deep freezes. The importance of thick walls is worth paying attention to because winter bees don’t need as much energy to keep themselves warm and cozy.
The puny 3/4 inch hive walls on standard bee hives may well be a detriment. The thin walls don’t retain heat, causing the colony to waste precious resources of food and energy trying to stay warm, and may go in and out of torpor (semi-hibernation). Bee scientist Thomas Seeley has demonstrated in studies that bees in thick-walled trees eat three times LESS honey getting through the winter.
Crack in the Bee Tree
In March I noticed the tree was starting to crack more. I removed the feeder and placed a warre box on top. The bees propolized the box and incorporated the new addition onto the aging trunk and filled it with nectar. That told me they were ready for the next step.
I made an educated guess to how far down the hive extended. Joseph and our friend Tel braced and cut off the top three feet of the trunk where the bees lived. We moved that section to a raised, covered area fifteen feet away. The move went really well and I soon added another warre box on top. Then I left them on their own, to live as wild tree bees.
I was concerned the cracks in the trunk might break it open, so I put some empty langstroth boxes around the lower section to hold them together. These lang boxes were only an inch larger than the trunk, preventing any sections from tipping over or collapsing. Though this photo looks like a warre hive on top of a few langs, inside the langs is the alder trunk. Joseph securely screwed the warre section onto the trunk and here they are today, seven years later.
Keeping the bee tree dry has prevented further rot, while the DEEP THICKNESS OF THE WALLS has helped them stay warm in winter and cool in summer.
The hollow empty trunk, no longer home to the bees, stayed chained to the post for all these years. I kept the top covered, for no reason really. Every so often I’d take the top off and let friends look inside to see the walls completely sealed with bright red propolis.
Demise of the Bee Tree
A few weeks ago I was in the bee yard, watching another hive in that lovely buzzy meditational reverie I get around bees. Suddenly I heard a loud WHOMP! and the ground shook. Startled, I spun around and saw the punky old empty trunk on the ground. After six years, the bottom finally rotted and the tree fell onto its side. Had I left the bees in that section, they would have lost their hive.
This time of year I don’t spend a lot of time in the garden and bee yard, so it was highly coincidental that I was standing not so many yards away when the empty tree finally fell.
I asked Joseph to cut for me two 3-foot sections of the empty log, still heavily propolized even though no bees have lived there for six years. These will become an educational display to show people how bees live in the wild.
Tree colonies who live in thick-walled hives have an easier time than conventional bees who live in thin wooden boxes! The thick walls are excellent insulation, and also significant is the dense propolis that covers every interior surface.
The interior of the colony’s old home continues to be perfectly preserved just as they left it FOR SIX YEARS without a speck of care.
Lessons from the Bee Tree
What do I understand from this?
- Thick, well-insulated wooden walls are more desirable than thin walls.
- When the interior is more constant temperature, bees use less energy to keep it warm or cool.
- When bees are too cold, they go into torpor. When the interior temperature is more constant, they are less likely to go into torpor.
- Bees who go in and out of torpor need to boost their energy by eating more honey.
When they need less energy, they don’t eat as much honey and are less prone to winter or spring starvation.
- Dr. Seeley also observed that tree bees surrounded by thick trunk insulation stay awake all through winter, and yet they eat THREE TIMES LESS honey than bees in conventional hives.
So what are the bees doing in there if they are awake but have no outside tasks to do? That question reminded me of something the bees shared with me: Winter bees living in a well-regulated situation dream the future year into being. In their words:
“In winter dreamtime, we unite and communicate with the nascent beings who dream the next cycle’s crops into life. Flower spirits are in a torpor of their own in winter, the seeds in a waiting. The hive, however, is alive with the presence of these spirits. Winter dreamtime is a celebration of connection and appreciation, a time of deep spiritual union when we are intensely aware of the flower spirits. The flowers are held in a cupped hand of gratitude as we send our appreciation — enriching and nourishing the flower beings and encouraging a fruitful next season.”
I believe bees have interior tasks that are beyond our perception. The more time I spend with bees, the more I find myself willing to trust that when they appear most quiet to us, the bees may well be in the midst of deep and significant holy work they do for themselves and the world entire.