January is the leanest month with very little food available for any creature in the wild. In order to survive animals have to either hibernate or largely rely on previously stored food reserves and that also applies to our native bees. Solitary bees and bumble bees choose hibernation where the young Queens that previously mated in the late summer, over-winter inside tiny nests typically made underground or in hollowed out plant stems remaining in a torpor until being awakened by the longer days and warmth of spring.
The wonderful video below provides a fantastic view of the lifecycle of solitary bees - our unsung heros of the insect world!
Conversely, colonies of honeybees choose to tough it out over winter. In the previous September and October, they raise special workers that are bigger and fatter than their summer sisters. These winter bees will live for six months instead of six weeks and their role is to keep the Queen bee alive over the winter. Around 5-8000 of them stay tucked up safe and warm inside the hive, consuming the stored honey from last summer and gently vibrating their wing muscles to generate heat.
Staying close to the centre of the hive in a loose cluster, the bees keep the temperature at a surprisingly toasty 25C or above even when its well below zero outside. Somewhere in the centre of the cluster, the Queen will lay small numbers of eggs most days to emerge as adults in three weeks’ time, mainly replace those workers that have expired naturally.
On warmer days above about 5C, some workers will make short “poo” flights or remove any dead bees to keep the colony clean and healthy and may also forage briefly for water. We keep an eye on the colonies and any that appear low on stores are fed with a slab of sugar candy (similar to that used on iced buns) placed under the roof to provide an instant source of food to the bees inside. In this way we ensure that the colonies survive through the long winter and into another year…