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  1. Up until the last few days most of us have been enjoying a milder than usual autumn, but the last few days have definitely turned colder.  Brrrrrrr

    Photo:  Carder bee foraging on hebe on a sunny afternoon last week

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    I often get asked what happens to the bees in winter so now seems a good time for a blog about just that.

    The answer is - it depends on which type of bee it is.

    It is often assumed bees hibernate during the winter months and that is true of solitary bees and bumble bees. 

    Towards the end of the summer months bumble bee colonies will switch from producing workers to producing drones (males) and then new queens.  These will mate.  The new queens need to feed to build up their fat reserves ready for hibernation.  They will then look for a suitable nesting site, usually north facing so they won't be fooled into emerging too soon by the warmth of the sun shining on the nest on a sunny winter day.  The old nests and drones will die.  The new queens will emerge next spring to start the cycle again.

    Photo:  Stocking up on ivy, ready for the winter

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    Solitary bees also hibernate during the winter.  It depends on the solitary bee though in which "state" they hibernate.  Some remain as eggs, or larvae.  Some remain as a pupae and a few hibernate as adults.

    Honeybees however don't hibernate although they do, for the most part, remain in the hive.  During the late summer the queen's rate of lay will drop.  As more of the older workers die than new ones are being produced the number of bees in the colony will drop.  In the autumn, the workers will decide the drones are now "surplus to requirements" and there will come a day when all the drones are summarily evicted from the hive.  These drones will perish from starvation or cold.  The colony continues to reduce in size until the numbers reach about 10,000. 

    Photo:  Honey bees stocking up on pollen ready for the winter

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    As the weather gets colder the bees will cluster together around the queen and any brood.  The bees on the outside of the cluster will "lock" their wings and vibrate their flight muscles.  This generates heat and the temperature of the colony can be maintained.  As the bees on the outside chill they are replaced by warmer bees from the middle of the cluster.  The colder the weather the tighter the bees will cluster. 

    During the winter months honey bees will occasionally fly if it is warm enough.  Often on a sunny day honey bees can be seen collecting water.  They will use this to dilute the honey.  Honey bees need approximately 40 pound of honey to see them through the winter.   

    The warmer winters we've experienced recently has affected bees.  Some of the buff tail bumble bee queens don't go into hibernation at the end of the summer months, but instead choose to establish a nest.  If these nests are successful, in the spring they will produce new queens around the time the hibernating queens emerge.  Its therefore really important to provide as much winter forage as possible for the bees.  Mahonia is a fabulous choice as it continues to flower throughout the winter and will be one of the few sources of food available to bees.

    Photo:  Buff tail bumble bee on clover

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    It's a busy week of events and talks this week, but this morning I decided to make the most of a few hours and have a long, autumn walk.  Armed with camera and Bug (my doggy companion) we set off for a  meandering walk.  

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    It was a glorious morning - autumn sun shine, crisp leaves to crunch through, fungus growing at the foot of trees, a kingfisher darting along the river (to quick to photograph).  

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    I spotted another large fungus (I have no idea of the names) growing on the side of a pile of what can only be describe as tree trunks.  Wandering over I spotted a bee heading in the same direction, and then another one.  Being ever curious when it comes to bees and what they might be up to, I went to investigate where they were going and that's when I spotted it.

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    A colony of "wild" or "feral" honey bees living in the tree trunk!!!!

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    When I first started keeping bees more than more than 10 years ago, I was taught that due to the problems bees were suffering there were no wild colonies and any there were would be sure to succumb to disease before long.  

    In recent years though I have heard more reports about wild colonies once again, but I didn't expect to see one on my walk this morning!  I have no idea how long this colony of bees has been in this tree trunk, but they well established and have obviously been there some months or longer.  

    Usually bees will chose a cavity with a much smaller hole than this one.  Its easier to defend for one thing.  So I'm a little concerned as to how they will fare during the winter.  However I am sure the bees know far better than we do, and I'm guessing that at the moment with all the warm weather and forage out there the colony is still quite large for the time of year.  

    I'm planning on checking back from time to time to see how they are faring and I'll share news of them as and when I have it.

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