by Deborah Rankin, J Bar D Ranch
As the cold season approaches each year honey bee colonies go through a process of change – the workers (sterile females) are busier than ever stockpiling pollen – and nectar (transformed into honey) – to sustain the colony through the cold winter months. By November the Honey bee queen (only fertile female in the colony) ceases to lay eggs; since no more baby bees are needed for a while it’s “Swan Song” time for the drones (males of the colony); they are permanently ejected from the hive.
Many of the older worker bees in the colony will begin to die off either from age or due to accidents while foraging for pollen and nectar. This in addition to the removal of the Honey bee drones and the queen’s egg laying cessation for the year will cause the number of colony inhabitants to shrink from as much as 80,000 honey bees at the height of the warm season nectar flows to around 20,000 for the winter season. This is Mother Nature’s way of helping the colony to maximize its winter food stores.
During cold weather, except for “cleansing flights” (Honey bees frown upon pooping in the hive!), the honey bees spend the majority of their time huddling within the protection of the hive to stay warm. There are a number of things that can go awry during this time that will impact the colony’s ability to survive the winter – disease or colony pests, such as Varroa mites, and/or starvation may overcome and kill the entire colony. Assuming the colony has sufficient winter stores and all else has gone well during November and December, the Honey bee queen will commence to laying eggs again – both female workers and drones – around January 9th to re-build the colony’s population in preparation for the coming spring nectar flows. So January, February, and March, constitute a very critical time for the colony – as new bees hatch the colony’s food stores will be consumed at a much higher rate. In response the colony will begin to forage regularly again – when the weather permits – to supplement their stores; pollen availability is especially critical. Pollen provides protein, while nectar fulfills the carbohydrate needs of the colony. The newly hatching bees consume a lot of protein!
Since honey bees through their pollination services are responsible for about one in every three bites of food we humans take, it is in our best interest to incorporate plants that bloom early in the year into our landscape and garden plans. Here are just a few – the Eastern Redbud tree, Magnolias, Dogwoods, Camellias, Jasmine, and Honeysuckle. Many people consider Dandelions as being synonymous with “land mines” in their lawn, but Dandelions provide an important source of protein for honey bee colonies. I always leave a section of landscape for Dandelions; watching the bees work those bright, little yellow blooms after a cold winter makes for a blessed day!
Check with your local nursery to determine the trees and plants suitable for your area that will bloom during these early months each year, especially January and February.
And think about leaving a few Dandelions for the bees – just as humans need variety in their diets, so do the bees!