By Greg Holthaus and Nina Evans
In the spring of 2016 the Zoo’s Horticulture Department established a honey bee colony in White River Gardens. What started as one hive has since grown to four, and in that time, we have learned a lot about beekeeping, especially about making sure our bees are safe and sound through the winter. Here’s all the buzz about our honey bees.
Spring is when temperatures warm up the earth, rain washes away the image of winter, and flowers begin to wake up from their slumber. The bees begin to emerge from their winter rest to the fresh aroma of flowers and sunshine. At this time of the year, the food reserves of honey and pollen are small, but so is the colony. The honeycombs can be thought of like a savings account — depositing when times are good and withdrawing when business is slow. Our first colony arrived in late spring with a queen that was ambitious to create a home and fill a hive with food for her rapidly growing family.
The heat of the summer is when most of the activity occurs within the colony and large deposits are made into the savings account. The honeycombs fill with pollen and honey quicker than ever and more workers are raised in fall than any other season. In the first year, our original bees were healthy and we were able to harvest some honey that year — some was even fed to the brown bears as a form of enrichment! The rest was stored away to feed the hive in case of an emergency over the winter.
When the temperatures start to drop, the activities of the bees change to meet the needs of the hive for the upcoming winter months. Fewer eggs are laid by the queen and the workers have fewer flowers from which to gather that much needed pollen and nectar. The deposits are smaller and the bees may have to withdraw from the “bank” if low temperatures and rain occur more often. To be sure they have what they need, we don’t withdraw any more honey from our hives after our spring harvest.
During the winter months no eggs are laid by the queen and there are no flowers to forage. The bees clump together, sharing body heat to prevent themselves from freezing. With this lack of activity the bees do not need as much nourishment as they did during the warmer months, but they still must eat. The honey and pollen that has been stored in the hive is slowly withdrawn. Our four colonies were able to store lots of honey last season, and we have helped out by some supplemental feeding, making cakes of sugar and water that are now in the tops of each hive.
In a couple of months, when temperatures reach the mid to upper 50s again, the Zoo’s bees will begin to emerge from their winter home, looking to forage and make more deposits in their bank. On those warmer days to come, we invite you to come and see them busily going about their work, pollinating plants for two to four miles (maybe more) from their home here in White River Gardens!
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