Busy as a bee is an expression for good reason! Hardworking honeybees rarely take a break, and for most of the year you’ll notice them flitting from plant to plant while helping pollinate our local flowers, fruits, and vegetables.
Tiaki Bees is always a highlight on a Forage & Feast Food Adventure and no food adventure would be complete without a visit to one of their hives and tastings of the honey and other local products. Our guests don spacesuit-like bee suits while Barna, Tiaki Bees owner/operator, takes us on a firsthand tour of life inside a beehive. It’s an amazing way to get up close and personal with such a key member of our local ecosystem.
But what does the colder Wanaka winter weather mean for the bees? We wanted to know what our favourite pollinators do over the chilly season, so we spoke with Barna to get the inside scoop.
What are the bees doing in their hive over winter? Why don’t we see them around like in the other seasons?
A common misconception is that honeybees hibernate during the cold months. Unlike most insects, honeybees don't go dormant. Though they’re not hibernating, the bees do stop flying when temperatures drop to around 10 degrees Celsius, which explains why you don’t see them very often at this time of year!
Instead, there’s actually a special type of honeybee, the ‘winter bees’, who are responsible for keeping the hive alive all winter. During these colder months, they stay awake inside the hive clustered together in a ball, eating honey and keeping each other and the queen bee warm so she can start laying eggs again in the spring.
So the bees are eating their own honey?
Yes! They’re pretty self-sufficient and they produce honey as a food store for the hive during winter. Lucky for us, these efficient little workers wind up producing 2-3 times more honey than they need, so we get to enjoy the tasty treat, too!
Can you tell us a bit more about these ‘winter bees’?
The job of carrying the colony through to the next season falls to this special caste of bees, called the 'winter bees', who have a lifespan up to 4 times longer than the summertime worker bees.
‘Winter bees’ are laid by the queen bee in the fall. When they are larva, the winter bees are fed a diet that is scarce in protein (pollen), compared to the summertime bee larva that receive a lot of pollen.
This pollen-scarce diet causes the winter bees to develop a special insect tissue that regulates their metabolism and produces vitellogenin, an amazing substance that enhances the bees’ immune system and increases their lifespan. This allows the winter bees to live for a few months instead of just 6 weeks. Because of this difference in their physiology, they are considered a separate caste of bees - unique from the other three castes of bees: workers, drones, and queen.
When the temperatures are too low and there aren't any flowers to be had, there’s no honey being made (making honey is a job for the summertime bees, the ones you see visiting flowers). Instead, the winter bees are responsible for eating the stored honey and keeping the colony warm by shivering their flight muscles.
Over the course of the winter, the colony gets smaller and smaller as the bees gradually reach the end of their lifespans. In the late winter, the queen will start laying eggs again, in preparation for spring. The queen does this slowly at first, so as to not lay more eggs than the colony can keep warm. The winter bees become responsible for incubating the brood ('brood' is the beekeeper term for developing larva).
Fascinating stuff! So when will we see honeybees making an appearance outside the hive once again?
As the temperatures get warmer and the colony gets bigger, the queen can start laying eggs in larger sections of the empty honeycomb. Come spring, the colony's population will quickly increase, especially as the first flowers bloom and the newly hatched spring bees start bringing fresh nectar and pollen back to the hive.
With spring just around the corner here in Wanaka it won’t be too much longer now until we see the bees start to emerge from their hives and get back to their pollinating and honey making work!