Around the mountains the thin branches of willows and maples are beginning to flush yellow and pink. Even with the winter weather, beekeepers see those changing colors and know in just a few weeks honey bees will start getting ready for spring.
All during winter, or anytime temps are much below fifty degrees, honey bees gather to form a cluster inside their hive. Using stored honey as fuel they vibrate their wing muscles to warm each other. It takes a lot of energy to shiver nonstop whenever it is chilly over a long winter! That makes it vital for the beekeeper to leave enough honey for the bees to feed all winter. Should the honey run low, whatever remains is shared with every bee down to the last drop. In this area, going into winter with 50-60 pounds of honey on the hive is considered minimum.
At the very center of the cluster of bees, the queen rests in ninety-three degree warmth. The ever-loyal worker bees vibrate constantly. When they become chilled they move from the outer layers to the warmer center, then rotate back out for another shift. During the summer, a worker bee lives about six weeks gathering the honey that means life or death for the whole colony in the cold months. Bees born in autumn live throughout the winter. They spend most of their lives in the hive keeping the colony warm till spring.
By mid-February, even if the weather is bitter, inside the bee boxes the queen will gradually begin to lay eggs. All the worker bees are female, yet only the queen lays the tiny eggs that will eventually replace the now-aging winter workforce. On sunny late winter days you may see bees rummaging in your bird feeder or an open bag of livestock grain. They are searching for grains of pollen. Pollen is the primary food of baby bees in their larval stage as well as protein for worker bees.
As with honey, the colony relies on the pollen they have carefully stored in summer and fall. You’ll find beekeepers drifting to their bee yards on warm winter days too, missing their bees after months without hive work.
By late February and early March when the maples and willow put out the vital pollen, a new season for the hive begins in earnest, even if the snow is still falling. On warm days, the bees will tirelessly gather pollen to feed to the next generation of bees.
One way everyone can help honey bees survive winter is planting (or preserving) late-winter/ early spring pollen sources. Some important sources are maples, willows, alders, and old-fashioned flowering quince.
(Previously published in the Yancey Common Times Journal)