Honey bees don’t slow down at this time of year like their often maligned cousins, the wasps. You might have noticed that wasps seem more abundant and annoying at fall festivals, outdoor cook-outs or weekend picnics. In fact, they are because they’ve switched from needing protein to feed their young (e.g., other insects) to craving carbohydrates (sweet beverages are a favorite) before they die later in the season—one last hurrah! As long the as the weather is relatively mild (about 55 degrees Fahrenheit), honey bees will continue to forage throughout the autumn months. In fact, worker bees spend many hours collecting enough nectar (carbohydrates) and pollen (protein) to feed and maintain the colony throughout the winter.
Honey bees born in the fall will need to be especially vigorous and healthy as they will be the ones who will keep the hive alive during the winter months. At the end of their lives, they will also have the very important job of raising a new generation of bees so that these young bees can then go out and forage for pollen and nectar in the spring. While in the summer months a hive can have about 60,000 bees, only 10,000 bees are needed to ensure a colony survives the winter.
As the days get progressively shorter and colder, these remaining bees will form what is called a “winter cluster”. The queen and her brood are kept at the center of this globe-like cluster. Worker bees shiver or vibrate their wing muscles, which generates enough heat to keep the hive warm in even very cold temperatures. On unseasonably mild winter days, bees will come out of the hive to dispose of waste products, clean the hive and forage. However, since there isn't much to forage in the middle of winter, their fall nectar and pollen gathering is critical to the hive’s continued survival.
How you can help honey bees at this time of year:
- Plant late blooming plants that will attract honey bees such as borage, calendula, zinnias, sedum, asters, witch hazel and goldenrod.
- Fill a shallow container with water and add some pebbles or twigs for the bees to land as they need a reliable and clean source of water to drink.
- Leave some of your garden clean-up for the spring. Dense, dried-up plantings provide welcome shelter for pollinators, protecting them from wind and cold. Wilting flowers still have nectar and pollen for bees long after they loose their vibrancy and begin to fade.