What happens to Hughenden's bees in the winter?

Bee on flower

When the temperature gets above 10 degrees bees will venture out in the winter sun for cleansing flights and even to forage, on ivy late in the year or snowdrops and crocuses early in the year. In spring the colony starts to produce honey and come the summer the pollen harvesting begins in earnest.

Bees through the seasons

Whilst honeybees and bumble bees are very closely related, their winter behaviors are very different: bumble bees hibernate, honey bees do not. Spring heralds an increase in activity as the colony begins to build and the queen starts laying again, up to 2000 eggs a day.

Mated female bumble bees 'bumble' around low piles of stones looking for a suitable home. Some live in small colonies but there are varieties of cuckoo bumble bees that lay their eggs where other species will be tricked into raising them as their own.

A large colony may swarm to produce a new group and seek out a suitable home.

Can bees survive a cold winter?

Winter can be a risky time but bees can cope with severe cold. Starvation, damp and animals such as woodpeckers, badgers or mice are the real threats. In autumn, wasps are particular threats and can kill an entire hive quite quickly.

It needs to be above 10 degrees for the bees to venture out although bumble bees, with their extra fur, can venture out in slightly lower temperatures. In a sustained, cold winter the bees remain tightly in a cluster, generating heat, and they consume less honey.

If they are tempted out on warm winter days they use more energy and need more food. As beekeepers take what would be their emergency supplies in the summer, we need to provide extra food for them through the winter.

Looking in the hive during cold weather to check on the colony would just increase problems for the bees so as spring arrives we look for signs of foraging flights on warmer days.

As the colony increases in spring the demand for food is greater so even those who have survived winter can die in spring from starvation.

A diet of flowers, blossom and weeds

Trees, flowers, weeds and crops can all provide pollen or nectar for honeybees. Oil seed rape or lawn dandelions are favourite forage. If you follow a walk with lots of spring-time flowers around, you may spot foraging bees. And if you look closely you can sometimes see the colour of the pollen they carry and work out which plants they have visited.

Protecting the bees

Honeybees in particular have been devastated by modern threats such as the varroa mite, predators such as the Asian hornet, reduced forage and the concreting of front gardens!

The bee project at Hughenden helps look after the apiary and the expert volunteer beekeeping team is active all year round making sure the honeybees are given the best chance to survive and thrive.

The beekeepers are available to give talks to local groups. They can provide a fascinating insight into the history of the countryside craft, the production of hive products, practical tips on becoming an amateur beekeeper and advice to gardeners about bee friendly plants.