The bees are ready for spring to spring

Published 8:24 pm Wednesday, February 21, 2018


Have you ever wondered what honeybees are doing right now? During the long winter months, you don’t really see honeybees, but when spring comes along it seems like there are bees on every flower. Where do they come from? What have they been doing since last fall? Let’s take a few minutes to get a “crash course” in the life of a bee colony.

During the warmer months when flowers are blooming, the honeybees store nectar in the hive, converting that nectar into honey. They need to store between 40 and 60 pounds of honey in order to survive the winter. They usually store quite a bit more honey than they need, allowing the beekeeper to harvest “rent” honey. It’s only right that they pay us with honey, since we are providing a home and care for them.

When the temperature outside dips to around 57 degrees, the bees begin to form a winter cluster. The queen will be in the center of this cluster, where she continues to lay some eggs throughout the winter. She is joined by nurse bees who feed the young. They are surrounded by an outer layer of bees who pack close together to keep cold air out of the brood area with the queen. The bees in this cluster vibrate their wing muscles to generate heat throughout the winter. When bees on the outer edge get too cold, they move into the center, while bees in the center work their way toward the outer edge. Even on the coldest nights of winter, the center of the cluster of bees is kept at a balmy 93 degrees.

On calm sunny days during the winter, when the temperature gets into the mid-40s, some bees will break off of the cluster and fly outside of the hive for a few minutes to relieve themselves. As the days get warmer and longer, they also begin to look for flowers.

Before they get too cold, the bees are back in the hive re-forming the winter cluster, and moving the cluster a little bit so that it continues to touch honey stores. This is a critical step for the bees. They need small breaks in the freezing weather, to give them an opportunity to move the cluster so that they are always touching honey. As long as the edge of the cluster is touching honey stores, they can pass this honey around the cluster, and every bee gets to eat. If the weather stays frigid for too many days, or the cluster fails to move over and re-form where they are touching honey stores, they will starve. This is rare, but it does happen.

As I sit here looking out the window, I see that the red maple has begun to bloom. This is what the bees and beekeepers have been waiting for. The red maple tree is one of the early forage resources for honeybees in Beaufort County. On these warmer days, the bees are headed for the maple blooms where they will find two critical resources.

First, they collect nectar which they will use to feed the colony. This allows them to slow the reduction of their honey stores. They will also begin to feed the queen this fresh nectar. As she gets fed more and more of this nectar, she will begin to increase the number of eggs she lays each day. This means that in about three weeks, the number of bees in the colony will begin to grow exponentially.

The second resource the bees collect from the red maple is pollen. The bees must have both nectar and pollen, in order to produce feed for the growing number of young mouths in the colony.

As we turn the corner into March, the number of bees in the colony will swell and explode. Older bees who lasted through the winter will die, and will be replaced by young bees ready to begin collecting resources for the colony. Other floral resources will become available as the weather warms and spring … springs. By the end of March, we are in swarm season, but that is for another article.

Chris Hux is the president of the Beaufort County Beekeepers Association.



Beginning Beekeeping

The Beaufort County Beekeepers Association will be hosting a beginners beekeeping course in March at the Beaufort County Extension Office, 155A Airport Road, Washington. Pre-registration is $30, or $40 at the door. Fee includes class materials and one-year association membership. Junior- and senior-high students are free with paying adult.

Class dates are March 10, March 17 and March 31. To register, contact Lisa Beacham at 252-945-9497, or email