As I continue to watch the bees in my yard moving around on the fall flowers, I started to wonder what bees do in the winter. I should know this, right? Well, in Colorado they don’t migrate, and they don’t hibernate (apparently in other places, some species do). So how do they survive the cold around here?
They cuddle and shiver to keep each other warm. Okay, the more precise, scientific explanation is that they cluster tightly together in the hive. To generate heat, they vibrate their wing muscles. Worker bees circulate through the cluster, sometimes on the edges and sometimes in the warmer center. The queen, of course, remains in the center which can be as warm as 90° F! The size of the colony is also important; the more bees in the colony, the better the hive’s fate will be.
As you can imagine, this requires a lot of energy, so the hive must be adequately stocked with honey. According to Colorado State University, that amount is 80-100 pounds. That is a lot of honey! Another fun fact, on warmer winter days, bees may leave the hive. And, ahem, when they do, that’s when they go to the bathroom! That is also when they remove dead bees from the hive. Who knew bees were so tidy?
Alas, as the days get shorter and the air cooler, the bees will start to hunker down. But now that I know they might be active on warmer days (approximately 50° F), I will be on the lookout for bees this winter!
The sunflowers at the end of my driveway are volunteers – I didn’t plant them or water them, they just appeared. And, they are a very welcome addition, especially now that they are in full bloom. One morning when I stopped to admire them, the cluster was literally buzzing. As I watched the bees moving this way and that, I leaned in even closer. It was then that I realized that the bees were literally dusted with pollen! The pollen covered their legs, heads, and bodies.
That should not have been all that surprising. Yet, as I watched the bees at work, I realized that I was witnessing a small miracle. I considered that this small miracle plays out on flowering plants all over the world, every day, thanks to the more than 20,000 known bee species (yes, you read that number correctly), as well as butterflies, hummingbirds, flies, and other pollinators. Thinking more about bees, a little research revealed that bees have been around over 100 million years, meaning bees (as well as flowering plants) avoided mass extinction during the event that killed off the dinosaurs. I am in awe. So the next time you pass a sunflower (or any flower for that matter), lean in. Look for the bees. Prepare to be amazed.
Last year, Colorado experienced two of its worst wildfires in state history. One of these, the East Troublesome Fire, exploded on October 14 and swept through the mountains and forests at an unprecedented rate. It quite literally was a firestorm. And it was devastating, especially for the Grand Lake community on the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park.
Historically, fires have been nature’s way of cleaning house and rejuvenating the ecosystem. In fact, there are some species of pine trees that need fire to release their seeds for propagation. In other words, there are many ecological benefits of low-intensity wildfires. Unfortunately, decades of fire suppression by humans and global warming have created conditions where the wildfires that do occur are catastrophic, as in the case of the East Troublesome Fire.
And yet, in many places, the forest is recovering. I hiked a remote part of Rocky Mountain National Park yesterday and saw firsthand the power of nature to heal itself. Clearly the area I walked through was not one of the hardest hit, unlike places that burned too hot for too long, killing everything from treetops to root systems. But where I was, the forest was full of life not even a full year later. While there were thousands of dead trees along the trail, there were many trees that had scorched trunks, but were still alive. In just the short growing season, there were also new trees growing. And there were wildflowers. This is common after fire because the ground has been cleared of competition, nutrients have returned quickly to the soil, and trees that had once blocked sunlight from reaching the forest floor are gone.
I wrote last week about fireweed, which is one of the flowers I came across. It reestablishes itself quickly and easily in disturbed areas. I also saw blankets of yellow arnica. The flowers in that blackened landscape created a distinct juxtaposition between destruction and recovery. Next year I will go back to witness firsthand another year’s worth of healing.
There is something magical about hiking to a high alpine lake in the summertime – the towering mountains, the crystal clear water, the bluebird-colored sky, and the wildflowers. But in late summer at high elevations, those flowers are dwindling, and the signs of fall are everywhere. And yet, there is still fireweed.
This hardy plant got its name because it is one of the first to grow and bloom again after a disturbance, specifically wildfires. Beautiful, yes, but also important. This colonization plays a key role in soil stabilization after fires, mudslides, and avalanches. It has long roots that are able to reach deep into the ground for minerals. Not only that, but the plant itself is highly adaptable. One plant can produce thousands of tiny seeds (up to 80,000!) that disperse in the wind; these seeds have tufts of white hairs that act like parachutes and can carry the seed far from its parent plant.
I witnessed firsthand the importance of these plants to bees, providing nectar in late summer – the meadow was literally buzzing. Other animals also use fireweed as a food source, including bears, muskrats, moose, deer, and elk. Long ago, the plants were important to native people worldwide. It was used as to make tea, and the shoots apparently are tasty and full of vitamins A and C. I’m not sure I’ll taste a fireweed myself, but I do enjoy them!