Do Honey Bees Forage In Cool Temperatures?

Honey bees can forage in cool temperatures.  Some official sources state a temperature as low as 55°F (approximately 12.5°C), however, I have seen them foraging in temperatures even lower than this, and honey bees may be engaged in other activities too - not merely 'cleansing flights'. 

In chapter 9 of his book, The Lives of Bees, Professor Thomas D. Seeley describes observations from cooler regions of the world, of thirsty honey bees collecting water at temperatures as low as 39°F (4°C).

The photographs at the top of this page and below were taken on January 15th 2020, and the official temperature according to a nearby weather station was 8°C (approximately 46°F). On that day, I saw no other bees foraging.

The bees I observed came from a wild honey bee colony I have been watching since February 2019, as I will explain below.  

Update: March 2021 - Visited the wild colony again.  It appeared active and healthy.

Why is this question important?

Honey bees are exceptionally important pollinators.  Wilson and Messinger-Carrill note in their book Bees In Your Backyard:

"One aspect of honey bee biology that makes them particularly valuable is that they are active primarily on the basis of temperature rather than seasonality the way other bees are.  Honey bees are most active between 60 an 105°F, though they can forage at temperatures as low as 55 °F.  This characteristic makes them valuable pollinators of crops that bloom before many native bees are active.  For example, almond trees in California will flower in February, earlier than most native bees typically emerge, but honey bees will effectively pollinate the almond trees as long as the temperature is warm enough.  The ability of honey bees to forage at such a large range of temperatures means that they are active somewhere in north America during every month of the year."

However, genetic adaptation may play an important role in tolerance to cool temperatures and suitability to local environment as discussed below.

Personal observations of wild honey bees foraging in cool temperatures

Honey bee worker foraging on pink, fragrant flowers of <I>Daphne bholua</I>Do honey bees forage in cool temperatures? Yes, the photograph above is of a honey bee foraging on Daphne bholua on January 15th 2020, at a temperature of 8°C (46°F).

Early in February 2019, my husband and I visited a beautiful garden managed by the National Trust in North Wales, UK. 

The weather was bitterly cold, but the sun shone brightly in the sky.  It was morning when we arrived and witnessed honey bees foraging on a range of early flowering shrubs (notably Sweet Box - also known as Christmas Box (Sarcococca confusa) and Daphne bholua).  Both of these winter flowering shrubs have what can only be described as a heavenly, sweet fragrance.  We discovered the bees came from a wild honey bee nest in a tree for which the National Trust created a small sign to inform visitors.

Honey bee foraging on Sweet Box (<I>Sarcococca confusa</I>) on a cool January day in 2020.Honey bee foraging on Sweet Box (Sarcococca confusa) on a cool January day in 2020.

I sometimes read (and had been lead to believe) that bumble bee queens are always seen earlier in the year and in cooler temperatures than honey bees.  However, we saw no bumble bees out and about, and similarly, no solitary bee species were seen either.  

Unfortunately I did not have a camera with me, and the only phone we had taken with us was back in the car.  However, we managed to get back to the garden later that month on 27th February. 

the trunk of a tree which has a wild honey bee nest inside it.

Again we arrived in the morning, the sun was not so bright as the earlier visit.  The weather, according to the nearest weather station was 41°F (5°C) and reached 48°F (9°C) by 12 noon.  I took photographs and film of the wild honey bee nest in the tree (above).

We saw honey bees around, primarily visiting Daphne, Erica, Rhodendron and Mahonia aquifolium.

A few bumble bee queens were also seen and to our surprise, we also observed Comma butterflies on the Daphne.

As a consequence of my observations from early last year, I have been especially keen to monitor the progress of the wild honey bee colony, firstly in the hope that it would survive and thrive and secondly, I was genuinely curious as to how early in the season the bees might be seen foraging, and again at what temperature.

Honey bees foraging in January

Worker honey bee feeding on fragrant <i>Daphne bholua</I> in January.Worker honey bee feeding on fragrant Daphne bholua in January.

As I write it's January 16th, and yesterday we were able to take a trip back to the beautiful garden to look out for the wild honey bees.  We saw them, and we were pleased to observe that the nest was active.  It appeared they were no longer using the original entrance on one side of the tree, and instead had switched to a crevice on the opposite side.

Worker honey bee feeding on fragrant <i>Sarcococca confusa</I> in January.Worker honey bee feeding on fragrant Sarcococca confusa in January.

As described at the top of the page, the official temperature was 8°C (approximately 46°F).  As with the first visit the previous year, worker honey bees were observed feeding on fragrant Daphne bholua, and Sarcococca confusa.  

No other bees species were seen yesterday, and no butterflies either.

Role of honey bee subspecies

Whilst some honey bees may have the ability to forage in especially cool temperatures, for beekeepers it is worth finding out which honey bees are best adapted to thrive in that particular geographical location.

Scientist, beekeeper, author, and world authority on honey bees, Professor Thomas D. Seeley, makes some very important observations with regard to the genetic adaptations of honey bee subspecies to a geographical location.  For anyone with an interest in beekeeping, his book The Lives Of Bees is not to be missed!  Quoted from chapter 11:

"The process of adaptation by natural selection produced the differences in worker-bee color, morphology, and behavior that distinguish the 30 subspecies of Apis mellifera that live within the species' original range of Europe, western Asia, and Africa.  The colonies in each subspecies are well adapted to the climate, seasons, flora, predators, and diseases in their native region of the world. "

It is of course, also worth providing winter flowering plants and shrubs for bees that can also thrive in your particular region.