Saturday, January 7, 2012

Winter Bees

After several days of unseasonably warm weather I decided to check on the honey bees to see if there were any bees buzzing around. I was pleasantly surprised to find them busily cleaning house and gathering pollen. I admit to being shocked about the pollen gathering though. I wasn't aware that there were plants or trees producing pollen in January in Missouri. As you can see by the back legs and the tip of the abdomen on this worker to the right she has been quite busy. The pollen they were gathering was very pale in color, almost white. If anyone has any idea what plant or tree might be producing pollen this time of year, please let me know. I am curious.

I sat and watched the bees for about 30 minutes and found it very relaxing to observe them in their daily activity. Workers would fly out of the hive, and return several minutes later, laden with pollen. Some workers were met at the entrance of the hive by additional workers that would quickly feed them a bit of pollen, before they entered the hive.
Then I noticed several dead bees on the ground below the hive entrance. I assume these are the workers who perished over the last few weeks. They had been swept out the door of the hive; one thing any self-repecting honey cannot abide by is a messy hive. Dead bees would definitely qualify as dirtying up the hive.

Upon further observation I noticed a bee come in for a landing at the entrance, it was not carrying pollen as it slipped inside. It wasn't long before this intruder was rudely escorted out of the hive, onto the ground and stung repeatedly before succumbing to death. The message was loud and clear "Don't come around here, you're not welcome!"

(The worker on the left was one of my bees, the one on the right under the blade of grass is the "robber" bee)

Honey bees will often try to invade the hives of other bees to steal their stores of honey and pollen. The intruders are often quickly detected by scent alone. The robber bees will smell different than the members of the hive and are quickly deposed of. To me it seems a folly on the part of the robber bee, why sacrifice yourself to try and steal some honey? Do the robber bees think it would be easier to risk life and limb, than to gather their own pollen or nectar? Granted this time of year their choices are limited, but still, is it worth dying over?

Occasionally I had to laugh as the bees would fly in to make a landing and seemed to judge the distance all wrong. These bees would crash into the hive, or into the grass around the hive, or sometimes into each other. One little worker crashed into her fellow hive mate, and spun herself around and quickly caught her balance by grabbing her sister bee. It was quite comical, as she held on as if her life depended on it. I am sure she experienced a moment of WTH just happened!? After several seconds she regained her composure and flew into the hive. Silly bee.

I am so excited to see that the bees are doing so well. I realize we have had a mild winter up to this point and that it will most likely change soon. My hope is that they continue to do well and survive any harsh weather that the winter is still likely to throw at us. 


  1. aw. sweet. yes, no dead H.s. bodies on my floor, either. Stinky. Love the image of banging into one another and other mis-flaps. Is it possible robber bees CANNOT make honey? Do all bees make honey? Pardon power 10 ignorant question, but you ask a good question: why risk life and limb for honey unless life and limb are at risk. Unless she's part of a big hive and the benefit to her sisters/mom is greater than the loss of her...

    Anyhow, sweet post. =) Rescued a honey bee (I realize they're non-native there) in HI from the ocean. Flashback to rescuing them from the swimming pool when I was a kid. Put her on the sunny side of a palm and watched her step, step, groom, step step, groom, shivering all the while to warm up, as was I. =)

  2. p.s. now I really want you to find that pale pollen source! =) do they take sugar water from hummingbird feeders?

  3. I am not sure why robber bees do what they do, except that they must consider it worth the risk. If they are able to take on the smell of the hive they are invading, they are relatively safe from being killed. The trouble is that it is difficult to get past the guard bees in order to invade the hive. A weakened hive such as one that is suffering from disease, wax worms or other maladies would be easier to invade. Perhaps the robber bees are just desperate.
    I rescue all honey bees, can't help it. I know they aren't native, but they are such energetic, productive and beneficial insects how can we not save them from certain situations they may find themselves in? Honey bees are actually native to Europe. They were imported to the Americas in the 1600's and have been here ever since. Several states have adopted them as their state insect, Missouri included.
    If you figure out the pollen mystery let me know. I've done some google searches but they yielded nothing.

  4. P.S. yes all honey bees make honey, except the queen and the drones. The queens only job is to lay eggs. The drones exist long enough to mate virgin queens. Those drones that do not succeed in mating will be killed by the worker bees of the hive and pushed out the door. They are dispensable. They are the loafers of the hive. More drones can be created the following spring. No reason to feed precious honey and pollen to a bunch of males that do nothing for the over all health and productivity of the hive.

  5. Greetings from St. Louis city. I observed some activity from my three backyard hives today. It is about fifty degrees so just on the edge of bearable flying weather. I was really surprised to see one bee return with full pollen baskets, only not a pale pollen like you saw but more of a squash blossom (or cheez-puff) orange. I wonder what is in bloom? Thanks for the nice blog.

  6. Thanks for commenting Randy. I was incredibly curious too about the pollen. I need to ask our local botany professor if he knows what would be producing pollen. Once I speak to him I will update the blog with the info. I'm glad your bees are busy and active too. This winter weather has been so surprising with such nice temps.