Help Honey Bees Survive This Winter

By guest blogger Heather Mattila, assistant professor of natural sciences at Wellesley College

Honeybees are far and away the most important pollinator in today’s agricultural landscape. They pollinate more than 400 crops worldwide, help to create about a third of the food we eat, and contribute an estimated $12 billion to our nation’s food supply.

All summer long, worker bees can be seen buzzing between flowers, collecting pollen and nectar and, in the process, pollinating vast tracts of crops (upon which we depend) and producing an abundance of honey (some of which is ferried away by beekeepers to local markets for us to enjoy). As summer draws to a close and the weather starts to cool, one of the questions I get a lot is, “What happens to bees in the winter?”

People often guess that honeybees hibernate; others presume that colonies die as cold weather approaches. Fall’s first frost does kill most members of bumblebee and yellow jacket colonies, leaving lonesome queens to establish new nests each spring.

But honeybees are different.

They’ve evolved a strategy for winter survival that is unique, one that relies heavily on frenzied visitation to flowers throughout the summer and a Herculean group effort in the months beyond. Believe it or not, their success in this endeavor depends on choices that you make for your yard and garden.

Honeybees need their calorie-rich, carbohydrate-loaded honey to keep them alive during the winter; it’s the perfect furnace oil for colonies. Worker bees eat this liquid gold and use the energy it provides to fuel rapid contraction of their wing muscles. Pumping these muscles without flying produces heat in the same way that shivering helps us to warm our own bodies.

As temperatures drop, honeybees cluster together within their hive to share the warmth that their “shivering” generates (picture a ball of bees a foot in diameter and sliced through by sheets of honeycomb). At the core of this cluster, worker bees keep themselves and their queen at a temperature that is only a few degrees lower than that of a healthy human. The cluster’s outer layer consists of tightly packed, slightly cooler workers that insulate the core as effectively as bird feathers or mammalian fur—don’t worry, everyone gets to rotate. This remarkable group behavior allows honeybees to keep the inside of their home virtually tropical while the rest of the natural world remains frozen beyond the hive’s walls.

Here’s where we come in. Honeybees in temperate climates have only a limited window—about 60 days in total—to stockpile the food reserves that they will live off for the rest of the year. This means that we need to do everything we can to create an environment that lets bees succeed as pollinators when the going is good. Here are three ways you can help bees survive winter:

• Plant late bloomers. When it comes to enhancing your garden’s fall bloom, consider adding late-flowering plants like goldenrod and asters that are critical to a colony’s final push to bring home food for the winter.

• Avoid systemic pesticides. Certain pesticides have toxins that invade all plant tissues (instead of just living on the plants’ surface), and bees bring these chemicals to their nests when they collect nectar and pollen. A group of chemicals called nitroguanidine/neonicotinoids has been shown to contribute to colony collapse disorder.

• Encourage early-spring blooms. Spring brings welcome relief for honeybees with a chance to restock dwindling floral supplies. Flowering trees—willows, maples, and the like—provide some of the earliest opportunities for bees to forage, so try to encourage their toxin-free growth when you can.

Like us, bees use their social skills to get through tough times. Our food supply rests on their success, so knowing how honeybees can achieve it, and how we can help, brings us one step closer to maintaining our strong working relationship—which means healthier crops, greater variety in our diet, and an abundant honey supply for all. Do you keep bees? Tell us about it on Facebook.

 

Heather Mattila is Knafel Assistant Professor of natural sciences at Wellesley College.  She studies the organization of animal societies, insect communication, and the evolution of cooperation, using

 

 

 

 

 
 

Bee Photo: ingridtaylar

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16 Responses to Help Honey Bees Survive This Winter

  1. Sharon says:

    I have my first hive this year. Since May 15 when they were set up as a swarm in a hive at Northampton Community College they have produced over 50 lbs of honey all of which we are happily leaving in the hive for winter “stores”. They are important contributors to the NCC Community Garden and have been incredibly busy this summer. We are hoping for the best for winter!

  2. Donna in Delaware says:

    I was passing a house one day, not too far from mine. When I turned the bend in the road, I noticed this huge bee hive in a maple tree in the front yard. I’m sure that it is bursting with bees and honey. So far, they have not had it taken down. It’s scary to see. I hope that no one gets stung. I’m not even sure that they know it’s there. We are in NCCo. Delaware, and this is the first bee hive I’ve noticed around here in 7 years. I’m surprised because people use so many herbicides around here.

  3. Thats great opportunity, i really liked your post on this topic all the sports lover must have enjoyed this post, keep sharing such post

  4. Carol says:

    I was particularly interested in how the honey bees stay alive during the winter. I will take your advice as to what to plant to help the bee hives up the street and will pass on the information to another friend who took some of those hives to her home to help them survive. I realize how important they are to our balance of nature. Thanks…

  5. Thomas says:

    This is stupid and useless. Colony Collapse Disorder only affects commercial hives that pollinate commercial crops using commercial pesticides. Apis mellifera is not even a species native to the New World. They are severely inbred now and geneticially susceptible to many diseases. Commercial beekeepers transport the hives during the growing season to pollinate specific crops at specific times. In the winter bees are fed sugar water. There is nothing you can do with your personal garden that will have any effect whatever on commercial bees.

  6. Kev C says:

    Thomas says:
    September 9, 2012 at 3:42 pm
    This is stupid and useless. Colony Collapse Disorder only affects commercial hives that pollinate commercial crops using commercial pesticides.

    Wrong!

    CCD affects all bee colonies of Apis mellifera. The pesticides affect other pollinator species as well. Domestic colonies seldom gather pollen and nectar from their own immediate surroundings, leaving these for last resort. They will forage in next doors gardens and even in neighbouring fields. Hence why pesticides are a problem. The average bee will travel easily 5 miles for food and they will do this continually for the better part of 6-8 weeks which is virtually their entire life cycle. The first 2-3 weeks are spent in the hive administering to the brood and other tasks. Once out and about they travel continuously looking for food. In 6-8 weeks a lot of land is covered. So the comment above by Thomas is clearly based on incorrect advice.
    CCD can affect all colonies of Apis mellifera regardless of whether they are commercial or domestic. The impact is clearly greater with commercial colonies due to the sheer numbers. Most households that keep bees will have only a small number of hives, between 1 and 5 usually, whereas commercial outfits have many hundreds of colonies.

  7. Faith Voigt says:

    Useful information, coming a little late for effective action this autumn.

    Care2, can we have a repeat publication next spring and maybe a reminder in June or July next year, to catch people when they are preparing their flower schemes?

    Thanks and good luck to everybody on the team

  8. Ruth says:

    Anything to help these little creatures out!

  9. Wendy says:

    Great info. Last year, we had a honeybee swarm break off from the main group and use one of our trees for a couple of days. We called our local bee man but they had gone by the time he arrived. He and we were very happy to know they are/were doing so well here.

  10. Thomas says:

    I used to work for commercial beekeepers. Agricultural pesticides are generally only applied to commercially pollinated crops before and after they bloom. Otherwise they would kill the bees outright and defeat the whole purpose. As the bees are moved from crop to crop, they are exposed to residual commercial pesticides all year long, even including in the corn syrup used to feed them through winter.

    Escaped and stationary hives forage on wildflowers and do not have anywhere near the exposure to pesticides commercial bees do. Hummingbird feeders also atract bees in winter. Plant flowers because you like them and make water sources easily accessible to insects so they don’t drown, but don’t breed West Nile virus.

    Just don’t think you are having any impact on CCD:

    http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/news/press-releases/2012-releases/colony-collapse-disorder-pesticide.html

  11. Terrie Hahn says:

    I have a question. I live in Central Texas. We’ve had a few warm days and we’ve seen a few bees. I put out our homemade gingerbread house and wet it down a little for the bees – like sugar water. One landed on it and then 10 minutes later there were several dozen. It didn’t get eaten by critters overnight as it does other years. So today the bees are back in huge numbers kind of swarming on top of one another on parts of the gingerbread house. I thought I was doing a good thing, but maybe not? I’m in a 5 acre subdivision, but I don’t believe any close neighbors are keeping bees. I had assumed these are wild honey bees.

  12. Dave says:

    I haven’t heard of gingerbread houses to feed bees, that’s a new one.

    You could be nosy and watch which direction the bees are leaving and arriving from, the term ‘bee-line’ was made for a reason :)

  13. justmynijlies@live.nl says:

    Hi,

    I was about to re-pot one of my indoor plants today when I noticed a bee between the soil. He seemed to have created a little nest of some sort. I just left the bee to it, in its original pot on the window sill. I am curious to know what the best thing is to help him survive. Do I water the plant or leave the soil to dry? Is it likely that the bee will stay there for the winter?

    Any help/info much appreciated.

    Imke

  14. Mark Cegielski says:

    Re Thomas says:
    September 9, 2012 at 3:42 pm
    This is stupid and useless. Colony Collapse Disorder only affects commercial hives that pollinate commercial crops using commercial pesticides.

    Maybe Thomas has spent too much time with commercial beekeepers. As a backyard beekeeper in CT I can assure you the problem is widespread and not limited to commercial operators. Every beekeeper I know has suffered major losses in recent years (all 4 of my hives last winter and 3 of 4 hives this winter).

  15. ulla says:

    I found a bumblebee this evening on the sidewalk. It was on it’s back but I picked it up anyway and took it home.
    It is moving a little and sits in an empty aquarium on a plate with some Manuka honey. It moved toward the honey. I am wondering what I can do to give it a chance to survive. I also have royal jelly I could feed it. Perhaps buy a real terrarium with a warming lamp.
    Any suggestions are very welcome.

  16. Linda says:

    I truly appreciate the balance of Nature and all of that good stuff, but some of you are forgetting that a bee sting could be deadly.

    Last year a colony was formed under my deck, which is only a foot above grown. I promised I would leave it alone, even though it meant I couldn’t go in my yard all summer (not eAsy after a Long cold winter.

    I called a bee keeper after one of them stung my brother but was told it was too small a colony to be interested in.

    Anyway, one day I ventured out to water my flowers a little too early and the bees came at me. I’m deadly allergic, so I walked backwards away from them and tripped on a step, fell and broke my toe and ankle — at my age healing took some physical therapy :( .
    So, all I want to know is if they will be in the yard this summer or if they died off — sorry hoping for the latter.

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