Answer Man: Is it OK to feed bees as winter approaches?

News-DemocratNovember 2, 2013 

Q. All summer long we had varying numbers of honey bees at our hummingbird feeders. The hummers are pretty well gone now, but the bees are still assertive feeders at our feeders. Are we helping or distracting them from finding other sources of food for the rest of the winter? We are glad to continue feeding them, but don't want to cause them any harm by doing so. -- Andrew Allan, of O'Fallon

A. It's often not nice to mess with Mother Nature, but in this case you're probably not making a difference either way, says Kevin Gerstenecker, public information officer of the St. Clair Beekeepers Association.

Unlike people feeding the bears in Yellowstone, the bees you see are merely out on one of their final nectar benders of the year before they hunker down in their hive for the winter. Besides, they probably aren't getting much satisfaction when they belly up to your feeder other than a tantalizing whiff of what they'd love to get at.

"He's probably not hurting anything, and he's probably not really helping anything, either," Gerstenecker, of Troy, told me.

"This time of year when we get warm days -- anything above 50 or 55 degrees -- the bees will leave the hive and go out and try to forage for nectar if there's anything available. So, they probably can smell the nectar in the feeder but because of its design, they're not able to get to it."

Oh, sometimes a hummingbird might slop a few drops on the outside when it pulls its beak away, but generally the bees will just buzz around until they become frustrated and fly off to try to find a real honey of a source. As a result, once those beautiful hummers split the area in the fall, feel free to take down your feeders for the season.

"Generally after the hummingbirds leave there really isn't much nectar available for the bees. You'll have some out looking around but once the goldenrod and the ragweed and the fall blooming weeds are over with, there really isn't much of a source of nectar for the honeybees anymore. By that time they generally have stored all the nectar that they need for the winter. So he wouldn't be encouraging them to do any kind of swarming. It's just more a curiosity thing for them."

But what the bees do late in the year is just as fascinating -- and vital -- as their nectar gathering. In a commercial hive, the bottom couple of layers generally are reserved for the "brood chamber" -- the area where the queen lays her eggs and the colony cares for its young much of the year.

But as the days start to shorten and temperatures dip, the worker bees start to fill the brood chamber with the honey that the colony will feast on to survive the coming winter. Then, when the fall chill really hits, the bees will gather around their queen in that brood chamber in one large mass.

"They will cluster up and they expand and contract their muscles," Gerstenecker said. "You hear a lot of buzzing in there but it's really not wing-flapping. They do a quick expansion and contraction of their muscles and that generates the heat that keeps the cluster warm.

"On warm days sometimes if they have honey stored above them, they'll move up and bring some of that honey back and feed the rest of the colony. That's generally how they winter over, and they can survive months of very cold weather like that. Inside, the temperature can be in the mid- to upper 80s. It's really quite incredible."

And to help them out, Gerstenecker says he makes sure he leaves them an ample food supply when he harvests the sweet treat for sales.

"I'm more into beekeeping for the bees and not so much for selling the honey," said Gerstenecker, who took up beekeeping three years ago. "I'm of the theory that it's better for them to have their own honey rather than me trying to feed them sugar blocks or supplement their food with regular table sugar. Besides, they've worked so hard all summer to make that honey, I figure the least I can do is to let them eat it during he winter."

Today's trivia

What Native American actor served as one of the models for the Indian head nickel?

Answer to Saturday's trivia: George John "Whitey" Kurowski hit only one World Series home run in his career, but it clinched the 1942 world championship for the St. Louis Cardinals. There was one out in the top of the ninth in Game 5 at Yankee Stadium. With the score tied 2-2 and Walker Cooper on first after a leadoff single, Kurowski slammed a Red Ruffing offering down the left field line and into the stands for what proved to be a series-clinching home run. It was yet another feather in Kurowski's remarkable baseball cap. A native of Reading, Pa., Kurowski nearly lost his right arm as a 7-year-old when he developed blood poisoning and osteomyelitis after falling on a pile of broken glass. But instead of amputating, doctors decided to try removing 4 inches of infected bone, which left him with a misshapen right arm several inches shorter than his left. Determined not to let it end his sports career, Kurowski worked his way onto the Cardinal roster at the end of 1941 -- and stayed there until retiring in 1949. Despite the disadvantage, the third baseman was a five-time All-Star selection and wound up with a .286 career average (106 home runs) and a .957 fielding percentage.

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or rschlueter@bnd.com or call 618-239-2465.

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