Bees don't really start flying until temperatures get into the upper 50s. Our hives are in a nice sunny location, so I've seen them get warm enough to do cleansing flights near the hives in slightly cooler temperatures. But the hustle and bustle of the spring hive rebuilding doesn't really happen until it gets warmer.
Even before the trees have visible leaves, the bees find pollen. This year, we started seeing activity around the hives and the first pollen collected (that I noticed) on February 21. Though the hives weren't super busy, workers like this one were pulling in pollen regularly enough that it didn't take me long to get a picture of one wearing her "pollen pants" as she returned to the hive with full pollen baskets. In the wider shot, the snow is still on the ground!
Based on a chart from Wikipedia, I think this particular bee was carrying red maple pollen.
We discovered a couple of weeks after these pictures were taken that the second hive in the photo, the "green hive," had actually not survived the winter. The activity we saw around the hive was probably bees from the other hives robbing the honey from the dead hive.
Pollen may be the first sign of spring, but it's not the most important. See, the bees are still living on whatever they stored from last year (we've supplemented that, but that's another post). So, what we need to make sure the remaining three survive are flowers. Flowers signal the start of the nectar flow, and nectar means the increasing population can find its own food.
Today, I saw the first concrete sign that the nectar flow will start soon. Most people probably don't even notice this harbinger of honey in my area. It's a little weed called purple deadnettle. Deadnettle and its close cousin, henbit, are some of the earliest nectar sources for bees. They are growing now in our lawn.
Of course, the bees are still working the trees in early April, and they are collecting pollen like crazy.
But it's the flowers that have me looking forward to another honey harvest and another year of watching the bees.