Bees before Christmas

On a mild day in December you are likely to see bees on the bright yellow flowers of Mahonia aquifolium. On the left is a honey bee, out foraging for nectar. She spends most of the winter huddled in the hive with the rest of the colony keeping warm and feeding off the honey they made during the summer. But, like squirrels, they don’t hibernate and the worker bees will fly on warmer days in search of a sugary, energy drink.

I spotted a number of buff-tailed bumblebees on the same winter-flowering shrubs (pictured middle). Can you see the large blobs of orange pollen? She has scraped the pollen grains onto her back legs and into her pollen baskets to take home to her nest. Most bumblebee colonies die off during the winter. Only the queen survives and finds herself a warm, dry hole where she lives through the cold weather in a dormant state and emerges in the spring to start a new family. But it’s not uncommon now in the south of England, with our increasing mild winters, for buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) queens to be laying eggs all year, and workers to be out collecting pollen to feed the young.

The Red Mason Bees (Osmia bicornis) that checked into the bee hotels under the eaves of our garden shed in May, aren’t around anymore. Like most insects, these solitary bees only live for a few months in the spring or summer. But their offspring are overwintering in a cocoon they have made (like a chrysalis). The cocoons are in the bee hotel tubes sealed with mud (pictured right). We’ve put these tubes in the shed to keep them dry until spring arrives.

The best way to help bees in winter

  1. Plant trees, shrubs and flowers that will provide nectar and pollen at this time of year such as winter-flowering cherry, Mahonia and Viburnum tinus.
  2. Plant bulbs such as crocus and alliums that will feed bees next spring and summer.
  3. Don’t sweep away piles of old leaves. Bumblebee queens may be laying dormant here.
  4. If you have a bee hotel, bring it in somewhere cold and dry, such as a garden shed, to prevent the cocoons getting damp and mouldy.
  5. If you see a bee on the ground, unable to fly give it a sugar water drink on the tip of your finger. It will suck up this energy drink with it’s straw-like ‘tongue’ , called a proboscis, and then can hopefully power up its muscles to fly away home.

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