Insect of the Week: Bees in Winter

Adapted from pages 141-142 of The Lives of Bees:

Worker honey bee collecting pollen from eastern skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus), which flowers early in the spring. Only the flowers are visible above the muddy soil; the stems remain buried below the surface of the soil, with the leaves emerging later.

 Shortly after the winter solstice, when the days begin to grow longer but snow still blankets the countryside in Ithaca, each colony raises the core temperature of its winter cluster to about 35°C (95°F) and starts to rear brood. Initially, there are only a hundred or so cells of brood in a colony’s nest, but by early spring, when the red maple trees, pussy willow bushes, and skunk cabbage plants (Symplocarpus foetidus) have come into bloom and are providing the bees with plentiful nectar and pollen, more than 1,000 cells hold developing bees, and the pace of a colony’s growth is quickening daily. Worker honey bee collecting pollen from eastern skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus), which flowers early in the spring. Only the flowers are visible above the muddy soil; the stems remain buried below the surface of the soil, with the leaves emerging later.

Come late spring, when the bumble bee queens and sweat bee queens are just rearing their first daughter- workers to adulthood, honey bee colonies have already grown to full size—30,000 or so individuals—and are starting to reproduce. Colony reproduction by honey bees involves not only the simple process of rearing males, which fly from their nest to find and mate with virgin queens from neighboring colonies, but also the intricate process of swarming (colony fissioning), in which a labor force of some 10,000 to 15,000 worker bees, together with the colony’s mother queen, suddenly departs in a swirling mass to establish a new colony.

The Lives of Bees: The Untold Story of the Honey Bee in the Wild
By Tom Seeley

Humans have kept honey bees in hives for millennia, yet only in recent decades have biologists begun to investigate how these industrious insects live in the wild. The Lives of Bees is Thomas Seeley’s captivating story of what scientists are learning about the behavior, social life, and survival strategies of honey bees living outside the beekeeper’s hive—and how wild honey bees may hold the key to reversing the alarming die-off of the planet’s managed honey bee populations.

Seeley, a world authority on honey bees, sheds light on why wild honey bees are still thriving while those living in managed colonies are in crisis. Drawing on the latest science as well as insights from his own pioneering fieldwork, he describes in extraordinary detail how honey bees live in nature and shows how this differs significantly from their lives under the management of beekeepers. Seeley presents an entirely new approach to beekeeping—Darwinian Beekeeping—which enables honey bees to use the toolkit of survival skills their species has acquired over the past thirty million years, and to evolve solutions to the new challenges they face today. He shows beekeepers how to use the principles of natural selection to guide their practices, and he offers a new vision of how beekeeping can better align with the natural habits of honey bees.

Engagingly written and deeply personal, The Lives of Bees reveals how we can become better custodians of honey bees and make use of their resources in ways that enrich their lives as well as our own.

This post is part of a series, explore additional posts here<< Insect of the Week: Bee ReproductionInsect of the Week: Inside the Honey Bee Nest >>