Monday, February 10, 2014

What do Honey Bees do in Winter?

That's a very good question with a fascinating answer.

our three top bar hives, hunkered down

Here's the fascinating answer in simple terms, thanks to our copy of Beekeeping For Dummies (silly name, helpful book) with my notes in parenthesis...

"The queen is surrounded by thousands of her workers- kept warm in the midst of the winter cluster (ball of bees with an open center).  The winter cluster starts in the brood chamber (where eggs are laid, fed and grow into adult bees) when ambient temperatures reach 54-57 degrees F. When cold weather comes, the cluster forms in the center of the two hive bodies (or across several bars of comb if in a top bar hive).

Although the temperature outside may be freezing, the center of the winter cluster remains at a constant 92 degrees F (a tad cooler if there is no brood to keep warm).  The bees generate heat by "shivering" their wing muscles (cooler bees on the outside of the cluster rotate in to take a turn being warm).

No drones are in the hive during winter, but some worker brood begin appearing late in the winter. Meanwhile, the bees consume about 50 to 60 pounds of honey in the hive during winter months.  They eat while they are in the cluster, moving around as a cluster whenever the temperature gets above 40 to 45 degrees F.  They move to a new area of honey only when the weather is warm enough for them to break cluster.

Bees won't defecate in the hive.  Instead they hold off until they can leave the hive on a nice, mild day when the temperature is 45 to 50 degrees F to take cleansing flights."

We witnessed this just the other week.  It was a balmy 60 degrees F and we walked out to check on the hives.  There was activity at each hive- bees flying in and out.  There was even activity at the hive we thought was dead (because we couldn't hear any buzzing from it the week before).  It may be that the other two hives found the honey stores in the dead one on that warm day or maybe we just couldn't hear their hum and they're actually still okay in there.

The bees weren't coming out to look for nectar- they were venturing out to relieve themselves and/or look for water (although condensation created from their warmth on the inside of the hive provides them with moisture/water as well).

There were a lot of dead bees on the ground under each hive.  Bees naturally die at the end of their life cycle. While winter bees do live longer than summer bees, some still die.  We're hoping that the number of dead bees on the ground is within normal range for this time of year.  They were likely doing a bit of housekeeping that day- getting rid of dead bees from inside the hive.

Sadie had come out to check on the hives with Jamey and I.  Even though she and I were standing about 10 feet away from the hives, she told me that a bee was in her hair.  She was so calm about it that I didn't believe her at first.  She repeated herself, I checked and, sure enough, a honey bee was exploring the back of her shirt collar.  I let it crawl onto my hand and then she and I watched it explore the tips of my fingers until it took flight back to it's hive.

Bees are awesome.  I miss watching them.

photo taken this summer

We took advantage of the warm day to place some granulated sugar into the back of each hive.  Sugar syrup would either freeze or make the bees too cold, but dry sugar is a supplement they can handle during periods when it's warm enough for them to break cluster.  We're feeding them to increase the chances that they have enough food to make it until the first big nectar flow this spring.

We're so hoping that at least one of our three hives will survive the winter.  We still have a couple cold months ahead of us and spring can be just as dangerous- just because it's warmer out doesn't mean there is enough food for them to find.  We have to keep an eye on their supplies so they won't starve.

I recently read this short, insightful article titled, "Why is beekeeping so hard?" (on our favorite bee site) which made me feel better but sad all at the same time.  Beekeeping is proving to be challenging but it's also an amazing experience I can't quite imagine living without. Pin It


  1. I love reading about your bees! Would love to try it, too, but my daughter is currently in an insect-phobic stage, and I'm not sure about our zoning anyway. Would check if I thought my daughter would still go outside if we had bees! :)

  2. I've been doing reading and getting familiar with bee keeping myself. This is something I want to
    try in the near future. Thanks for sharing this post :-)

  3. Thanks for sharing! We only have one hive and this is it's first winter. We have had some very cold days and nights (as in 0* and below, it's 8* right now) and lots of wind. So we are obviously concerned about our hive. They do have a wind break but my DH says he will be surprised if they make it :( Time will tell I guess.


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