Fall is Mother Nature’s time to get ready for winter. Some animals fatten up because they know food will be sparse; some will migrate to better climates to mate, build a nest, and raise a family; and some hibernate either with members of their own species (like snakes) or by themselves (like bears).
Honeybees (Apis mellifera L), on the other hand, are busy putting up the last of the pollen and nectar of the season that can be collected and stored until it is too cold outside of the hive to do so. Their sole summertime mission is to collect and store enough nectar and pollen to last through winter until spring. In the mid-Atlantic region, the average honeybee colony requires approximately 50 to 70 pounds of honey to survive the winter. So what do honeybees do during the winter?
In preparation for winter, the queen (the only fertile female) slows her egg-laying as the number of worker bees (infertile females) goes down. The workers kick the drones (males) out of the hive because they won’t feed them throughout the winter and the queen will lay new drone eggs in the spring. All of these activities go on simultaneously until daytime air temperatures go below 50°F.
At the beginning of October, a managed honeybee colony could have as many as 60,000 bees and, at the beginning of March, have as few as 30,000 to 40,000 bees in the colony. Honeybees are capable of thermoregulation; they maintain the heat in the colony for their nest mates by vibrating their bodies to create heat during periods of cold weather. The honeybees maintain a “cluster,” a ball of honeybees huddled together to maintain the heat for the colony to survive the winter. Research has shown that the outside temperature of the cluster is maintained at 57°F, and the center of the cluster could be as high as 92°F.
In managed honeybee colonies, the cluster moves around the inside of the hive to consume the stored pollen and honey during the winter.
There are negative factors that affect honeybee colony survival, that is the varroa mite (Varroa destructor), a parasitic mite that feeds off of the blood (hemolymph) while the honeybees are in the cell as a developing larva. Varroa mites are just one of the many maladies that affect honeybee survival. Most are treatable through beekeepers using Integrated Pest Management (IPM) which treats honeybee colonies without chemical interventions. One IPM method is simply changing the queen bee of the colony with a new, younger, well-bred queen. It breaks the egg-laying cycle of the previous queen, disrupting the varroa mite life cycle.
In Maryland, we have a disease-sniffing dog able to detect American Foul Brood, a rare brood disease found in honeybee colonies. Another pest to honeybee colonies are field mice, which make nests in the bottom of honeybee hives. Beekeepers install mouse guards on the front entrance to prevent mice from entering a colony in mid-August to the end of September.
As winter sets in, the honeybees cluster up to keep warm and it’s the beekeepers’ job to inspect their colonies monthly — preferably when air temperatures are above 50°F — to ensure the honeybees have sufficient food available.
Let’s take a quick look at Bombus, aka the bumblebee. While honeybees form clusters of thousands of nest mates to keep warm, a single fertilized bumble bee will burrow into the ground and hibernate for the winter. When spring arrives again, she will find a suitable place to build a nest and start to lay eggs.
If you would like to know more information about honeybees, you can visit the Montgomery County Beekeepers Association online (montgomerycountybeekeepers.com) or one of the many land grant universities’ extension services as well.
I hope you enjoy the fall season as you prepare for winter — like the honeybee.
[Bob Borkowski, an MCBA member, is a retired law enforcement officer and National Guardsman and has kept honeybees for 22+ years.] ■
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