With the frigid temperatures you've likely been reading on your thermometer (if it reads that low), you may wonder how anything could survive long in the out-of-doors during these, the coldest days of the year. And it's true, winter survival is no easy task for the wildlife in our area - at least for those species that stick around instead of high-tailing it down south. Case in point, the honeybee.
While the honeybee is not a native insect, it does deserve recognition as an incredible survivor in these cold climes. Most of us are already in awe of these buzzing beauties because of their usefulness to us as pollinators and honey-creators. But there is much more to appreciate! Surprisingly, these sweet connoisseurs have developed several impressive adaptations that allow them to stay alive all winter long. Yes, even when the wind chill pushes the temperature well below zero! Perhaps the most intriguing of these adaptations is the production of a new type of member of the hive. As fall approaches, bees with a completely different body chemistry are produced. These "wintertime bees" are capable of surviving colder temperatures because they can store more body fat. Incredibly, at the same time these new members are being initiated, male bees are forced out of the hive to starve.
When temperatures start falling significantly, honeybees begin to form a tight cluster within the hive. Much has changed since the spring and summer but the queen is still the main priority; she is positioned at the very core of the bee-ball, against a full honeycomb - where the temperature is highest. The colder it gets, the tighter the bees squeeze together and the smaller the mass becomes. When the outer-most layer gets cold the bees switch places with those on the layers closer to the queen. This repositioning will only work for so long. When winter temperatures dip below 50 degrees Fahrenheit the bees must begin pumping their flight muscles to actively produce heat. Can you guess what fuels these living space-heaters? That's right! Honey! The average hive will go through 60 pounds of the sweet stuff in a single winter!
At Audubon, these incredible insects are on display ... INSIDE! As part of a 2005 exhibit called "What's the Buzz?" (do your remember it?), a honeybee observation hive filled with live bees was installed on the second floor of the Audubon Center. The hive was designed so that the bees could come and go as they please, thanks to a wooden tunnel that allows them access to the outside. In the warmer months, the workers travel as far as three miles away from their indoor hive in search of nectar and pollen. This time of year, they mostly stay inside.
The "What's the Buzz?" theme is no more and the space on the second floor is currently dedicated to teaching visitors about pollination, but guess who has yet another starring role in the new theme? The honeybees of course! The whole hive is safe behind glass so you can watch them without getting stung or even going out in the cold!
The Audubon Center will be returning to its regular hours on March 1 so it's a great time to come out and visit these important pollinators. Maybe you'll spot the queen!
Starting March 1 the building will be open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Building admission is free to children and member adults. Nonmember adults pay only $6. Sundays are free admission days and the building is open from 1-4:30 p.m. The outdoor trails of the sanctuary are always open from dawn until dusk at no charge. Until then the center is open Mondays, Saturdays and Sundays.
Audubon is located at 1600 Riverside Road, just off Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown.
Call 569-2345 or visit our website at for more information.
Crin Fredrickson is a seasonal naturalist at Audubon and loves anything with six legs.