Last weekend’s warm temperatures (70 degrees in Apollo on Sunday afternoon!) not only woke up the hibernating lady bugs and stinkbugs out on my porch (and in my living room, and in my kitchen, and in my…) but also mobilized overwintering honeybees into activity out in our “flowerless” winter landscape.
For example, Tracie Brockhoff on her farm in Dayton, PA saw honeybees swarming over and on her sweating horses, and Arnold Barnes in Latrobe, PA watched as honeybees covered his backyard bird feeders and emptied them of cracked corn (Honeybee. Public Domain Image/Jon Sullivan).
What was going on? Both of these behaviors were for me, and for Tracie and Arnold, without precedents. Warm winter temperatures can stimulate both kept and feral honeybees into going out to forage for nectar and pollen. If they are out hunting, though, in an environment that has no flowers (like a warm, January afternoon in Western Pennsylvania) their exertions can use up valuable energy reserves that the colony may need to survive the rest of the winter.
The honeybee’s swarming around Tracie’s horses might be explained by misinterpreted chemical cues. Many early spring flowers produce odors designed to attract the initially more abundant flies of the cool, spring months. Scents like sweat and body odors (and worse!) are not uncommon. Possibly the bees were following the sweat odor cues in their search for flowers. But how could the clustering around the cracked corn be explained?
I contacted two friends who keep bees, Jennifer Wood and Robert Steffes, to see if they had any thoughts about these observations.
Both Jennifer and Robert talked with great concern about the warm, winter weather stimulating the bees to go out on energetically expensive and inevitably fruitless reconnaissance and gathering missions. They indicated that the waste of this critical energy might even cause the entire hive to die.
Robert also mentioned that heat, moisture, and trace minerals are big attractants for bees especially in cold weather. This was a possible explanation for the abundance of the bees on the horses. And, referring to beekeepers who also raise chickens, he said that the observation that bees are attracted to cracked corn, especially to the corn dust which is “pollen-sized” is a common one.
So, the honeybees in Dayton were attracted to the warm, sweaty, odoriferous horses and maybe mistook them for giant spring flowers. And, the honeybees in Latrobe were digging through the cracked corn in the feeders gathering up the pollen-sized corn dust to take back to their hives. Both observations reflect circumstances of odd honeybee behaviors driven by hunger and by the absence of any real “bee food” in the environment.
The honeybee activity of this past weekend was definitely a “sign of spring,” but it was not one we welcome or want to see. As Robert put it, “the beekeeper’s first sign of spring is seeing the honeybee foragers bring in their first loads of pollen.”
The flower buds of the red maples are swelling rapidly and should open in a month or so. Colt’s foot, cut-leaf toothwort, and spring beauty should flower right around then, too, and in our flowerbeds snow drops and crocuses (especially the ones right next to the house!) will be blooming right along with them.
Nectar and pollen are on the way! Hang in there, bees!