Monday, December 24, 2012

Honey Bees in the Winter

The honey bee is well adapted to live in diverse environments. Honey bees are found from the hottest equatorial regions to extremely cold temperate regions. In the temperate zone, bees are able to regulate the atmosphere of their hive from the heat of summer to the cold of winter. Honey bees have adapted behaviors to accommodate abundances of food as well as dearth. When flowers are in bloom, bees make honey; when no flowers are blooming, bees eat that honey. Bees regulate the temperature of the brood nest at 95 degrees Fahrenheit. In the summer they often need to cool the hive; in the winter the workers generate heat to keep the bees warm. To stay warm, the bees form a round cluster, a three-dimensional ball of bees divided by sheets of honeycomb. Tightly packed bees on the outside of the cluster insulate those inside. Bees on the inside eat honey, a high-energy food, and generate heat in their flight muscles. Honey bees don’t waste energy warming their entire hive, only the brood and bees. It would be wasteful to warm unoccupied corners of the hive.

Certain honey bee races, particularly those that evolved in the colder regions of northern Europe and Asia, exhibit behaviors that further conserve precious honey reserves needed to warm and feed bees over lengthy and severe winters. Since adult bees can survive at lower temperatures than brood, these cold-hearty bees force their queen to stop laying eggs in the winter. Without brood in the hive, bees only warm the cluster to about 70 degrees.  The longer that the hive remains without brood, the less food is consumed. However, the queen may begin laying eggs anytime after the winter solstice. Egg laying is stimulated by workers bringing in pollen. On warm days, like today, workers seek pollen. Here they are mistakenly collecting dust from cracked corn and grain sorghum that I am feeding to ducks. Many people find honey bees in their bird feeders in the winter.

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