The honey has been harvested, the flowers and garden spent, and leaves are vibrantly pitching their last hoorah before cascading to the ground. Signals of seasonal shifts abound. So what are the bees doing?
Most bee species die off in winter, leaving a queen behind, frequently overwintering in the ground, surviving off of fat stores, awaiting warmer spring weather to begin anew. Honey bees are different though. They live in colonies and overwinter together, all for one and one for all. But how? Typically, honey bees live just four to six weeks, diligently working for the greater good of the hive until they die on the job, their life’s work significantly greater than the 1/12 of a teaspoon of honey they’ve made, greatly contributing to the ecosystem via their vital pollination services.
Honey bees born in the fall are special, able to survive the winter months to maintain their genetics for abundant new life in spring. Signaled by the weather changes, the queen lays special eggs in the fall and those bees will be with her through the winter, soldiering on through whatever Mother Nature throws their way, awaiting the Winter Solstice when the hive ramps up again in anticipation of spring and all of its glory. It’s another amazing fact about honey bees that causes me to marvel at nature’s design.
After the honey was harvested, I began feeding the honey bees a 1:1 simple sugar syrup for them to store into open combs for the winter. This is a supplement to the honey I left behind for them, never taking all of their food, just the surplus in the supers, along with the nectars they collected from the brief fall flow.
The fall nectar flow is dramatically different from the spring nectar flow in our area, with much less food options and a shorter time period. As such, I’m happy to note the clovers and last dandelions in my yard from which the bees can gather scant nectar. Moreover, I’m always grateful for what I’ve planted in the past that now blooms in the fall since fall food sources are so essential, yet scarce, for all pollinators.
Every fall, I survey what I have and add a few more plants to support pollinating insects in need of food. It’s such a great time to plant anyhow since the watering needs are so much less demanding without the intense heat of summer. This year, I added a fringe tree, a spicebush, a buttonbush and a bottlebrush buckeye, a plant I’ve had on my wish list for years. Additionally, I added some asters since I feel like I can never have enough asters to meet the needs of the honey bees, native bees, and butterflies covering these fall blooming plants, not the least significant of which is the majestic monarch butterfly in need of rich nourishment for their impressive migratory flights to points south to maintain their lineage.
Fall plants of greatest use to pollinators include asters, goldenrod, and sedums, all easy to grow plants. Cosmos and Mexican sunflowers continue to bloom in my garden, providing additional food for the pollinators. If you don’t have any of these plants and would like to support the ecosystem, they are easy options that don’t just help sustain our pollinators with fall food when little is available, but also provide pops of color when other plants are fading. Milkweeds are necessary for monarchs to lay eggs, but remember that once the caterpillars have eaten all the green leaves from those plants and form their chrysalis, the actual butterflies will then need nectar from fall blooming plants, as do their kin in pollination, the amazing honey bee. Fall blooming asters and sedums can really provide a boost to all pollinators and your garden.
There are many ways to feed sugar syrup to honey bees. While I’ve tried various methods, I predominantly use inverted quart jars with small holes punched into the lid from which the honey bees can sip the syrup and a feeding pail that works off of a similar concept but holds significantly more syrup allowing me more time in between replacing syrup.
An empty outer cover protects the bottles and pail from competing marauding insects, including any neighboring honey bees that would take advantage of sugar syrup at the ready. Once the weather remains cold or the bees stop taking the syrup, whichever comes first, I will remove the supplemental feed and the empty box to allow them to maximize the heat they generate inside.
So you may be wondering how I know that I am harvesting honey when I feed sugar syrup to the honey bees. Once spring arrives and they ramp up their activities again, I will add empty, mostly built out honey comb frames into boxes referred to as honey supers. The bees will gladly accept this boost of space and store away the new nectars and pollens they avidly collect during the spring nectar flow, maintaining it with care as it converts to honey over the following weeks and months until it’s ready to be harvested and enjoyed as honey.
The other things honey bees are doing in their hives now is shoring up their walls from drafts, much as we might do in our homes. They collect a very sticky substance from plants and trees called propolis. Propolis is put into any drafty nook and cranny and going forward, there’s no lifting off a bee box without the use of a hive tool with which to leverage and pry the boxes apart from one another.
Inside the hive it’s girls only now. The male bees, the drones, have long been kicked out of the hive by the females since they contribute little to the mix over the winter and would only eat their honey stores. In the spring, the queen will again lay unfertilized eggs to allow drones back into the equation, their sole job being to mate with queens, as we understand it. At a time deemed necessary towards the beginning of fall, the drones are denied access to the hive, blocked by guard bees and the ones inside are kicked out. I’ve watched female bees carrying off drones from inside the hive. Crazy, as the drones are significantly larger than females!
So as we sense the changes in temperature and begin our fall and winter preparations, honey bees are a step ahead of us, already prepared to endure what comes. Honey bees can handle the cold, living in extremely cold climates around the world, as long as they have proper food stores and stay dry.
Honey bees in Maryland generally don’t need insulation from the cold. They do need proper ventilation and dry conditions. My hives tilt slightly forward to enhance runoff from rain and snow. The only structural changes made this time of year are mouse guards at the entrances to hives because mice love warm bee hives chocked full of delicious honey and would gladly nest in there through winter. My mouse guards have been in place for months now as I place them on when I feed to reduce the ability of robber bees.
Once we begin getting routine frosts and temperatures stay low, I will replace my ventilated inner cover with a solid inner cover for the winter to help keep heat inside the hive so the bees don’t have to work quite as hard. I leave my ventilated bottom board in place throughout the year since ventilation is so important. Then on those very cold days when I’m tucked warmly inside of my own hive, I recognize the bees ability to cluster together, fanning their wings just so to maintain warmth, keeping them warm as well and I muse, anticipating days when bees forage and colors abound once more.
Honey bees will continue to fly on warm days of 50 plus degrees, searching for any last food options, cleansing themselves and spreading their wings, but the focus of the life of the fall honey bee is now one of survival. They’ve done their work and now I cross my fingers and hope to see them anew once winter breaks, periodically checking on them throughout the winter to see if I need take any emergency measures, but yes, I cross my fingers because the business of beekeeping leaves a lot out of my control. For now, I make my own autumn preparations and gladly welcome the seasonal shift.
…for so work the honey-bees,
Creatures that by a rule in nature teach
The act of order to a peopled kingdom.
- William Shakespeare, Heny V, 1599