I’m as guilty as the next person: I’ve been reveling in this unseasonable weather. (It was 60 degrees here a few minutes ago.) But I’m reminded, by those canaries of the insect world, the honeybees, that something is amiss. You see, these warm days keep honeybees active. They’ve been flying out from the hive, but they aren’t finding much in bloom. Plants are still playing catch-up with our warmer autumns. So the bees return with little nectar and less pollen. But, working hard, they still need food. So they eat the honey they’ve produced earlier in the season. But this is the stuff that’s supposed to see them through the winter. I got an email yesterday from a local beekeeping group, noting that the city’s honeybees are diving into their winter supplies now. Beekeepers were being urged, if they needed the impetus, to add supplemental feeding to keep that honey stockpiled; since this is usually sugar water, even with added vitamins, it’s poor stuff compared to the wonders of nectar.
In winter, honeybees cluster in a dense clump inside the hive, surrounding the queen and vibrating to keep warm. Honey, essentially a super energy, is what gets the hive through the cold. Workers on the outside of the clump circulate towards the center to warm up, and vice versa. When temperatures rise above 60 or so in the early spring, they can fly out on cleansing runs, dropping all their stored wastes outside the hive. Life’s a balance between the amount of honey and the length of winter – complicated, of course, by the semi-domestication of this naturalized species, since an amount of honey has been harvested by the beekeeper – with disease, predators, etc. factors as well. The winter hive is an all-female operation: male bees, the drones, are driven out to die in the fall. Big eaters, but little contributors, male bees have no place in the political economy of the winter hive.