Honeybees in the winter – What do they do?
February 18, 2019
Usually this time of year I get the typical question “What do honeybees do in the winter?” from people who found out that I’m a beekeeper. Most people assume they all die off. Honeybees in the winter do quite the opposite.
For those strong hives that were able to collect enough food and have managed avoid the destructive mites that have been terrorizing and threatening their very existence, here is a little about what happens in the cold winter months.
Honeybees cluster together.
Honeybees do not live very long in the spring and summer months, usually about 4 to 6 weeks. This is because they literally work themselves to death. However, the bees born in the later season closer to the winter months will typically live through the winter.
Everyone wonders how bees manage to stay warm in the winter and what it is that they do. Honeybees cluster together to stay warm, but most importantly they cluster themselves around the queen to keep her warm. During this time the queen will not lay any eggs.
This isn’t a loose cluster either, it is a very tight group of honeybees all working together for the same goal.
Usually the cluster will start at the bottom of the hive and, gradually, throughout the winter they work themselves to the top feeding off of the collected pollen and honey they worked so hard for during the spring and summer.
What is also fascinating is that honeybees will not “release” themselves inside the hive either. For the most part, honeybees work really hard to make sure their homes are clean and well maintained. I think of it in the same way that humans do to make sure their homes are clean as well.
Kicking out the drones and lowering the population.
Honeybees have figured out an exceptional way to survive in the winter. For starters, they kick out the drones. That’s right, all the workers kick out and evict all the males in the hive.
The workers, all the females in the hive, work the hardest throughout the spring and summer collecting food, making sure all the larvae are taken care of, they do all the cleaning and take care of the queen. This is all done on top of making honey.
The drones do not do much of anything else except occasionally one might get to mate with a queen. Naturally, it makes sense to kick all the left over surviving males out.
During the spring and summer the population in the hive is into the 100 thousands. To make sure there’s enough food to ensure the hive survives, in the winter the population is cut way down.
Make sure your bees are fat and happy before winter.
There isn’t much a beekeeper can do in the winter to their hives. If anything, you will want to leave them alone. Messing with a hive or trying to remove frames in the winter will cause the cluster to break apart and the hive will freeze to death.
However, one thing a beekeeper can do is ensure their bees are fat and happy before the cold hits.
This is done by monitoring their food reserves and making sure they have enough food in the fall to make it through the winter. But what do you feed them if there isn’t?
- Pollen patties: this is made by mixing sugar, water, vegetable oil and pollen substitute together to create an edibile food substance for the bees. Of course, it isn’t as good as the real deal, however, if your bees are low and you want to make sure they have enough food, it will work.
- Sugar water: In the spring, beekeepers will provide sugar water to those new hives in the ratio of 1 cup of sugar and 1 cup of water. However, in the fall you will want to provide 2 cups of sugar to 1 cup of water. When I first did this it looked like a thick soup of sugar!
Neither of these are as good as the pollen or the honey that come from the honeybees themselves, however, when it comes down to making sure your bees have enough food, safe is better than sorry.
It isn’t the cold that kills bees in the winter.
The cold weather isn’t the main problem in the winter as much as the moisture is. If a beekeeper wraps their hives up or tries their best to make sure the hive is sealed up for the winter, moisture will be the killer.
Honeybees generating heat on the inside of the hive, mixed with the cold weather on the outside creates a lot of condensation that drips onto the bees.
The best way to avoid this is to make sure your hive is ventilated. This can be done by making sure there’s a small opening at the bottom of the hive and an opening on the top. In the fall, I will usually use a small stick or a small flat rock to prop open the lid.
The best comparison is if you’re sweating inside your house and you walk outside into the cold weather. It feels even worse than if you weren’t so hot beforehand.
Honeybees are survivors!
Honeybees really are fascinating! Regardless of the season, bees have their own way of making it through and surviving. Their unique way of living is what perked my interest to begin with. Now I’m addicted to learn more about how their social structure works and how they function.
There’s always something new to learn about them. Just when I think I have these gals figured out, they show you something else that you didn’t know.
Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot that is threatening them. Looking past that and just how they function as a whole is really quite captivating!
Please leave a comment below and let me know what your thoughts are about how bees survive in the winter. Or if you have any of your own questions.