Winter Bee Food Sources

As I write this just before Christmas, we’ve had snow three times already this winter. Cold enough for snow means honey bees are clustered deep within their hive bodies, diligently working to sustain their lineage via regulating temperature, caring for the queen and raising limited brood, all the while eating through their honey stores. The Winter Solstice is already upon us and our colonies will now slowly begin to rear brood in preparation for the all-important nectar flow, but not before we worry.

 

I know that I’m not alone in worrying about my honey bees in winter- their ability to get to their food, how much food they have remaining, the volume of overwintering bees keeping colonies going and just whether or not they are alive.  I visit my hives regularly in winter in search of any signs of life, bending next to my hives, knocking, plastering my ear to the sides of the hives, listening for any sound indicating that my esteemed winter bees are alive. It can be hard to believe in what you cannot see regardless of how much thought went into winter preparations, so any sound or sighting is encouraging.

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On a recent warm winter day, I was happy to note that honey bees were flying. This one was caught unaware of the rapidly falling temps in the late afternoon. She was on my window screen, next to holly bushes that her kin pollinated in spring that now carry lovely red berries for birds to eat this winter. She graciously crawled onto my finger and I carried her back to the hive. Five years into this and the feel of her tiny legs tickling my skin as she slowly crawled on my hand absolutely delighted me!

So what will our girls eat during these cold winter months that are upon us? We all know that they eat their own honey and certainly bee candy and pollen patties provided by diligent beekeepers. January is typically our coldest month in Maryland, producing the most snow of our winters here so food stores are vital. Yet, the errant Maryland weather allows for days when temperatures soar, melting away snow and ice, and our girls will exit their hives, orient and relieve themselves, and perhaps on a warm enough day, search for food sources. And oh, what a sight it is to see!

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As freezing days gave way to a warm 55 degree day last week, honey bees exited their hives, reveling in the warm flying weather.  Many of my girls returned home with full pollen pouches!

Skunk cabbage is one of the first plants to provide pollen for honey bees here in Maryland. I’ve seen my girls flying on warm January and February days, returning with pale colored pollen pouches that likely comes from skunk cabbage in the neighboring woods.

Skunk cabbage is a wetland wildflower so named for it’s smell and has an unique ability to push through ice and maintain warmth at 20 degrees above air temperature. The pollen from skunk cabbage provides a valuable early protein source for young honey bees.

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This image of skunk cabbage with a bee boasting a very full pollen pouch comes from Michigan State University where they’ve been studying the impact of skunk cabbage on honey bees.

Maple trees can bloom as early as February. I’ve even seen some dandelions bloom that early in microclimates next to buildings where the sun nurtures the blooms. Some varieties of witch hazel bloom end of December or early January here.

Crocuses tend to be one of the first bulbs to pop out of the ground and offer bright orange/ yellow pollen to bees, but not before even earlier bulb sources like winter aconite, a somewhat fickle bulb that does not like any ground disturbance once planted. When left alone, winter aconite bulbs will shoot up late winter and provide a food source to honey bees months before other bulbs even consider emerging from the warmth of the nurturing soil.

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This winter aconite in my garden was blooming the first week of February last year. These yellow pops of color are a welcome sight in my winter garden, often with snow still on the ground.

One of my favorite early food sources are winter hellebores, some varieties blooming as early as December, others bringing their blooms late winter and carrying them for months. These plants provide a medium height ground cover, leaves remaining year-round, and have the bonus of being drought tolerant when the heat and humidity of summer set in. The bell like blooms hang from the plants that slowly spread and provide food to our honey bees during a time when the temperatures are not warm enough to sustain much else.

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This variety of winter hellebores blooms for weeks beginning late December.

Winter flowering heather, snowdrops and willows are other plants that offer nutrition to our honey bees when snow and cold temperatures are still very much in the forecast. Seeing honey bees returning with full pollen pouches on warm winter days is reassuring to see, suggesting the colony is rearing brood, ramping up for the critical nectar flow with as many bees as they can sustain, planning ahead as they so fastidiously and remarkably do.
As we once again await the blooms of tulip poplar and black locust to welcome the return of the nectar flow here in the mid Atlantic, take heart that honey bees are working behind the scenes, soldiering on through winter, readying themselves to renew in due time. Until then, don’t fret. Instead, direct your energies into spring planting dreams. Peruse those seed catalogs and think about what plants could be added to your landscape to support honey bees and pollinators during times of dearth. Or jot down a note in your planner to consider adding one of the above referenced plants when conditions for planting are favorable, and this time next year, you’ll begin to watch for blooms while outside monitoring your hives. Spring planting and bee chores will be here soon enough!

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What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness?             – John Steinbeck

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