Posted: Tuesday 17 January 2012
by Richard Jones

[...] the hives on the small allotment on the corner of my street are quiet; maybe, at last, the occupants have settled down into a tight over-wintering huddle.

honeybee on flower

Last weekend saw the first real frosts of this, apparently, unusually mild winter, at least in London anyway. At long last, the hives on the small allotment on the corner of my street are quiet; maybe, at last, the occupants have settled down into a tight over-wintering huddle. They need to get some winter rest, otherwise they will, quite literally, work themselves to death.
The media (social and mass) have been alive with reports of extended winter wildlife activity. As well as butterflies flying throughout December and January, bumblebees and honeybees have been active throughout these supposedly quiet months. There are, of course, mumblings about global warming, climate change, and honeybee declines. Whether they are linked, we will have to wait for the accumulated consensus of hindsight in, say, 50 years, before we will know for sure.
One thing we can be sure of, though, is that our insects (and other wildlife) need winter. It is not just a tough time, to be endured and struggled through; it is at the heart of one of the most important evolutionary pressures on animals, and one of the delights of nature — seasonality. And honeybees are a good and practical example of how it works.
Honeybees were domesticated by humans because of the nest’s honey stores. The sweet-filled cells see the bees through periods of dearth, when flowers are not producing pollen and nectar, either through drought or (much more likely) through cold. The peak times of honey use by the bees are first thing in the spring, as the bees gear up to full-on foraging activities and in autumn, as they are winding down. Rather than have to react to an immediate availability (or absence) of nectar, which may come on slowly and peter out gradually, the honey provisions allow the bees to wake up early and start brooding new grubs before there is really enough food out there to sustain them. The colony is thus at full strength when the flowers burst in spring. Likewise, at the end of the season the bees can keep scouting for flowers even after the point comes when there is really not enough nectar out there to keep them going. The honey stores are the perfect food availability buffer.
The western honeybee (Apis mellifera, the one we know in Europe, but also in North and South America, Australia, New Zealand, Northern Asia and into the Far East) has evolved to live in a strictly hot/cold seasonal climate. That’s why it stores honey. Other honeybees, like the African giant, Apis dorsata, or the dwarf species A. florea and A. andreniformis, are tropical/ subtropical and they only make a small honey store as a potential buffer against any non-flowering dry season.
All this unseasonably mild winter weather has been great for seeing bees and butterflies visiting the garden plants still in flower, but it may have been playing havoc with the hive’s honey accounts. As the bees have kept active, will they really have been able to find enough food? I suspect that the relatively warm temperatures may have tricked them into energy-expensive forage missions, but in reality they will have been gradually depleting their all-important stores. To borrow an analogy from economics, they are depleting their capital, rather than living off their income. As the cold hits, the bees can now properly switch off, and wait for the real synchronizing switch-on of a real spring. Who knows when that will be.

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