Spreading the Bee Buzz #10 – Surviving Winter

The latest in our series on beekeeping for a village magazine – written for non-beekeepers, and to suit the broad range of ages and knowledge among the readers.

Over winter insect life disappears from our gardens. The frosts have killed most, including the last of the hive-raiding wasps, but some insects hibernate, and below 8-10°C honey bees become slow, conserving energy, clustering together for warmth and eating through their honey stores. On a few days when it is sunny enough to warm their wing muscles, some will pop out on short toilet trips, often appearing just in front of a hive as a sudden cloud of bright darting sparks in the winter sunshine.

Local bees are tuned to our seasons and the winter cold signals to them that it is too expensive (in honey, the bees’ economy) to raise many young, and so a short hiatus or significant slow-down in laying occurs, often lasting ~2 months in this locality. This brood break can fortuitously be key in helping to cleanse the colony of many of its short-lived pests, like the varroa mite, as their life-cycle is intimately tied to that of the young larvae. A general northern European genetic adaptation which ‘allows’ the colony to survive this lack of new young being raised is that our winter bees are anatomically different to their short-lived summer (and southern) brethren and so instead of the short 15-38 day lifespan, they typically live 140 days or more; long enough to last over winter and raise the first batch of spring bees alongside their Queen, who typically lives 1-3 years.

If they survive the winter – if they don’t run out of stores, if the Queen still lives, if no pests have invaded – in spring the bee colony will monitor the growing warmth and lengthening days to decide whether the Queen should now begin laying lots of brood for an early population surge, or instead continue to conserve stores and breed cautiously because it looks like a delayed spring and slim pickings. Badly adapted (southern) strains will breed vigorously regardless of conditions, and need feeding with sugar if the weather turns bad. Our locally-adapted bees will typically begin raising some workers again in February, to harvest the first blossom in March.

You will doubtless have heard on the news about growing bee losses. Over a typical winter, 10-20% of UK colonies die, about double the summer rate. However, in the USA, annual losses have been up to 44%; their bees are under greater environmental stress from a more intensive style of large-scale mono-agriculture, exotic pests such as Small Hive Beetle, and the huge migratory apiaries which treat their bees roughly as expendable commodities.

UK bees are still under pressure due to forage and pesticide stresses, and just as they seem to be beginning to develop resistance to the varroa mite it looks like a new pest, the Asian Hornet has arrived. However, in recent years on the positive side, there has been a rethink over best practices in agriculture and how we all value our environment and so thus far, our pollinators have been buffered from the worst extremes of agricultural over-specialisation. Our relatively small and often hedged fields have more varied forage, the EU limits some pesticide use and subsidises wildflower borders for fields; also new gardening trends have created pollinator-friendly resevoirs of wildlife.

I would like to conclude this article by thanking all you thoughtful gardeners and farmers reading this, for all your effort over the last few years in reducing the use of pesticides and improving local forage.

Previous articles in this series are:
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