Winter is my time to curl up on the couch with my heated blanket, a hot cup of tea and a good book – or let’s be a real, binge watch a new television series. Many humans “hibernate” in the winter; we tend to stay indoors where we can comfortably heat our homes to whatever temperature we desire, only braving the cold for those few moments running to the car. You may wonder what other creatures do? Bears actually hibernate, birds fly south to warmer climates, while others adapt to the changing temperature.
So what do honey bees do in winter?
Unlike bumble bees and wasps, honey bees do not hibernate during the winter. Although the insects come from the same species, their winter tendencies are very different. When outside temperatures begin to drop to below 60 degrees it signals the bees to prepare for winter.
Six ways that bees prepare for winter
1. Bees have one main job in the winter — to take care of the queen bee. This means they must keep her safe and warm. Bees prepare for winter by performing a multitude of tasks that ensure the hive’s survival during the cold months.
2. Before winter female honeybees (worker bees) force male bees out of the nest because they eat too much.
3. Bees literally work themselves to death. In colder weather, worker bees live up to nine months, in warm weather, they live about six weeks.
4. The honey bee is cold blooded; they need to maintain warm temperatures in the hive to keep themselves alive during the harsh winter months. To do this, the worker bees join forces in the form of a cluster. They huddle together with the queen bee at the center. Worker bees shiver and flutter their wings in unison, providing constant motion which in turn keeps the cluster warm. This vibration can heat the center of the cluster up to 93 degrees. Bees do not warm their entire hive, as humans do. Their focus is just to keep the cluster warm in order to not expel any extra energy.
5. The colder the weather the tighter-knit the cluster. In the winter months the honeybees only leave the hive for cleansing flights (read: take potty breaks). On the image above, the yellow represents where the bees are in clusters in the hive. This shot was taken on the coldest day of winter.
6. The bees need a source of energy to essentially shiver all winter long. This is when the honey comes into play. As a beekeeper, at our apiary, we try to leave at least 100 pounds of honey in the hives so the bees have enough to consume and stay energized for the entirety of winter. Bees will consume up to 30 pounds of stored honey over the course of a single winter. You always want to leave more than enough honey for the bees.
Maryland winters are unpredictable, with some days brutally cold and snowing and the next days be 60 degrees and beautiful. On the warmer sunny days, bees will leave the hive to spread their wings and relive themselves before returning back to the cluster. The cluster will also reposition itself in other areas of the hive where there is fresh honey.
You never want to check on hives during the winter. Even for a few moments the intense cold can shock and kill the bees.
If honey bees die during the winter, it’s usually not due to the cold. Varroa mites are the main cause. The mites are an external parasite that can infect bees with various diseases that can ultimately kill a hive. The best way to prevent against varroa mites is to treat the bees before the winter.