The beehives are still very quiet through February – some bees will be flying on fine days but overall there’s very little activity. In fact in February the population will be at its lowest as the ‘winter bees’ begin to die off – these are bees laid the previous Autumn which have more fat reserves than the shorter lived summer bees. They won’t die off completely – at least we hope not – and the population should bottom out at between 5,000 and 10,000.
Things are changing fast though. The queen will start laying again around the middle of the month if she hasn’t done already so that there are plenty of workers available for when the first spring plants start to appear. It’s not her decision though – the workers will have started cleaning out cells ready for her to lay in and encouraging her to visit them.
The first bumblebees should start to appear in February – with Buff-tailed Bumblebee queens usually being the first to appear. These queens have been hibernating since last summer – usually in a coolish north facing site that she doesn’t wake too early in the dead of winter – and her first priority is to feed.
Bumblebees have an incredibly high metabolism. By way of comparison if a human adult eats a Mars bar it takes 60 minutes of running to burn off the calories. If you can imagine a human sized bumblebee that same Mars bar would be burned off in less than 20 seconds. So the queen, who hasn’t fed for several months, needs to find nectar urgently – that’s why early spring flowers such as crocus are so important. As well as looking for nectar sources she will be looking for nest sites – often old mouse holes in tussocky grass.
It takes a lot of energy to keep a bumblebee queen in the air and you might see one on the ground, apparently exhausted. She will often recover by herself but if she hasn’t moved in 20-30 minutes gently place her onto a flower or give her a few drops of sugar solution (just white sugar – not brown – and water) to help her recover.