￼Bees have received a lot of publicity in recent years and beekeeping has certainly caught the imagination of a lot of people. The bees that most people think of are honeybees and bumblebees, but there are about 251 species of bees in the UK and of those, arguably, 29 are bumblebees.
honeybee on lonicera fragrantissima - (Stewart Gould)
I say arguably because a couple of new species have arrived recently. 221 more are solitary bees. They don’t live in colonies and don’t store any honey. There’s just one species left to talk about, and that is the honeybee. Yes! There is just one species in the UK and indeed, the whole of Europe (apis mellifera). The only other 8 species of honeybees are all native to Asia. The Americas and Australasia don’t have any endemic species of honeybee at all, so they borrowed ours, but that’s a story for another day.
Honeybees and the winter
Unlike other bees, honeybees live in colonies which survive the winter, and they do this by storing large quantities of food (honey) to see them through the cold and inhospitable times, when there is little or no food available to them. From January on though, there is food in small quantities and so the queen, who lays all the eggs, will start to lay small amounts equal to the food available. She is encouraged by the worker bees bringing in pollen, which is the main constituent of food for her young, and in January and February they can find small amounts of bright orange pollen on snowdrops and a grey/green pollen on hazel catkins. In the garden, certain varieties of viburnum are in flower, as is winter flowering honeysuckle (lonicera fragrantissima). Worker bees taking pollen into the hive, on their back legs, is a sure sign that all is well in the hive. On a sunny winter’s day, there are few things more uplifting than the buzz of a honeybee visiting those bright cream flowers. Also uplifting on a crisp day, is the sight of a cornelian cherry (cornus mas) in full bloom. It’s not native to the British Isles, being first reported at Hampton Court in 1551, but by the 1600s its pickled fruit were being used as a filling for tarts. I don’t know that I fancy the idea.
Do honeybees come out in winter?
Yes! Honeybees do come out in the winter when temperatures and the sun allow it. There won’t be a cloud of them outside the hive, but a few will venture out in temperatures around 8 or 90C, especially if it’s sunny and still. Most of the family, however, sit inside and huddle up until the temperatures reach 120C and then out they pour. The problem with that is simply that there is not enough food to warrant their excursions, and so they expend energy, which has to be replaced. That means they eat their stores of honey, and if they eat it all, they will starve. To avoid that, we feed them. At this time of year, we supply a patty of fondant, which is simply a sugar paste with the consistency of fudge and we place it inside the hive, as close as we can to the huddle so that they don’t have to travel far to get it. Disturbing them too much at this time of year could also be detrimental as they may chill.
Will we see them now?
You won’t see any solitary bees just yet though, because once the breeding season is over, the adult bees have fulfilled their purpose and unfortunately, they all die. The next generation is entrusted to the bug box you hung on the wall, is buried in a tunnel in your lawn, or a hole in your masonry. Just the eggs remain. What you will see or hear, on one of the warmer days is a large dark object lumbering from one blossom to another, or simply speeding across the garden. This is a queen buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) and she has been hibernating underground, in a mouse hole or similar excavation. The new queen, which was mated last year, is the sole survivor of a little colony of about 150 – 200 bees and she is trying to get established as quickly as possible.
First, she will find a suitable nest site and build a small storage pot made of wax. This she fills with nectar to keep her going during bad weather and she also creates a pollen store which will be the food for her young. Only now will she start to lay a few eggs and she broods these just like a mother hen. When they have hatched, she will venture forth again in search of food and after about two weeks when the first worker bees have emerged, they will forage for food for the growing colony. The queen can now concentrate on egg laying and shouldn’t leave the nest again. This is the first bumblebee to be seen. Strangely, the early bumble bee (Bombus pratorum) won’t be seen abroad for another month or so.
The early Spring isn’t a time of despair then. It’s a time of renewal, and to be frank, there have been buds on our Magnolia stellata since the last leaves dropped. There will be honeybees in ever-increasing numbers. Keep an eye out for one or two on your snowdrops, with their bright orange payloads. They seem to discover them quite late in the game and the juggernaut queen bumblebees really make you realise that the warmer, and hopefully, drier weather is just around the corner.