The European Honey Bee (Apis mellifera) is a common insect on Capitol Hill, but like many other species, it wasn’t here before settlers started showing up on the shores of Puget Sound. Despite this, it happens to be one of my favorite insects. Honey bees have always been held in high regard by people worldwide for their pollinating prowess, their honey, and, more recently, their ability to communicate and work collectively as a hive.
I bring up honey bees, glazing over the multitude of native pollinators, because they are particularly obvious this time of year as one of only a few species still active. With but a few flowering shrubs and perennials I’ve seen around the Hill in the past week, honey bees are getting as much out of the last good, warm days they can. One of the unique things about honey bees is that they try to last the winter as a colony without hibernating, this isn’t terribly unusual for social insects, but is a largely unique phenomenon for the insect world.
A huge variety of insects species ride out the cold months when the temperatures are low, but most do this with adaptive measures that revolve around dormancy or migration. Many time their life cycle to flourish in the warm months, breed, and then lay eggs that will sit out the winter (sometimes with many generations living and dying as the summer drags on). Some migrate long distances, altitudinally or latitudinally to get at better food, Monarch Butterflies (not around here) and dragonflies are famous for these mass migrations (in the case of Monarch we actually know many of the individuals that return weren’t the ones that left, but instead generations hatched and pupated en route to and from their wintering ground). Yet others find places to go dormant, you may have found what appears to be a sleeping Yellow-jacket (fertilized) queen tucked into a corner of your home, hibernating in wait for the warmth to start a new colony. Honey bee colonies overwinter in their hives alive and fully conscious with the help of honey.
Some of you are now smacking your heads, saying “duh,” but I don’t think everyone knows the true importance of honey. Honey is the lifeline of bees in the winter and while they are up to a variety of things throughout the summer including collecting pollen (high in protein) for brood rearing, this time of year they’re most interested in getting carbohydrates to bolster honey stores.
Once the average temperature dips below 50 degrees during the day, the cold-blooded bees keep to the hive. There, they huddle in a tight cluster around the queen, shivvering their wing muslces for an ambient termprature that will keep them alive and happy, even enough to allow the queen to rear young that will replace natural die off. Centered around the queen, her daughters (the workers) trade places between the warm center and the cold outer edge so that ideally no-one freezes.
Those workers that spend the winter in the hive are different from the ones that we see all summer. Right about now is when “summer” worker bees begin to die off and are replaced by “winter” workers. These winter bees are more rotund to help maintain the necessary warmth. They also live much longer, around 4-6 months, versus a little over a month for a summer bee. No matter the type, there is natural die off during the winter, but this is also when bees are vulnerable and colonies are at risk from disease, poor conditions, and lack of food.
Whether or not the bees we see around Capitol Hill are from a beekeeper’s hive (there is a flourishing bee keeping association in Puget Sound) or are feral, wild bees they all need energy though the winter, between 30 to 100 pounds of honey depending on the length and severity of winter. As things wind down for honey bees and they settle in for the winter, I certainly miss their gentle buzzing but I like thinking about them in their hives alive and well, lapping away at their honey. For now I’ll enjoy their final foraging efforts in these early days of fall (and look forward to writing more about them as the seasons change again because there’s so much more to discuss).