Reasons Honey Bees Die in Winter

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Why Bees Die in Winter

Honey bees are most active during warm weather but they can survive year round. Why do many bees die in Winter? Sometimes beekeepers struggle to keep hives alive over the Winter months. There are many reasons that beehives die . Some of these factors are under the control of the beekeeper and some are not. Losing Winter colonies is a normal part of learning how to keep honey bees successfully.

image of beehives some that die in winter cold

For the beekeeper, finding a beehive of dead bees in Winter (or any other time) is no fun at all. And sometimes, we just find the hive empty with no understanding of what has happened to our colony.

When a colony fails, the beekeeper loses the money and work put into it, as well as, the hope for future rewards.

The feeling of failure can be so great that many beginning beekeepers give up. They wonder – why did my bees die? Was it my fault that the colony failed?

The possible causes of hive death are many. Unhealthy colonies due to varroa mite infestations, lack enough stored food and cold temperatures are some of the top issues facing the beekeepers.

picture of dead honey bees why bees die in Winter

Do All Bees Die in Winter?

Various insects have different ways of surviving the Winter cold. For honey bees, living together in a large family is their method of over Wintering.

Even within a honey bee colony, not every bee will live from October to April. Some bees will die every day.

On warm Winter days, house bees may throw the dead bodies out of the hive. Seeing some dead bees in the snow in front of your hive is no cause for alarm. This could just be a symptom of bee housekeeping.

Do Entire Beehives Die Off in Winter?

In general no, a beehive should not die during Winter. A healthy colony of honey bees with ample food stores should live from one season to the next on stored honey.

Honey bees “born” in late Fall are special. These fat Winter bees can live for up to 6 months – much longer than the normal 6 week life span for the Summer bees.

On average, a healthy beehive with good honey stores should be capable maintaining bees in residence until April.

In recent years, honey bees have struggled with pest and health issues. This has resulted in a higher percentage of colonies being lost over the Winter season.

Honey Bees Do Not Hibernate

Honey bees do not hibernate – at least not in the way we think of true hibernation.

picture of a small fall colony of bees in a hive - at risk for winter

Instead, they cluster together inside the beehive. The colony of survives winter by consuming stored honey.

You may not see much activity from the outside. But, the bees in the hive are working together to survive.

Those honey bee colonies that come through Winter in good shape are highly valued. Perhaps, those bee genetics are some that we want to keep in our bee program.

Top 3 Causes of Why Bees Die in Winter

  • Extreme Cold Temps – together with small bee population
  • Starvation of the colony – lack of adequate food
  • Condensation inside the hive – not enough ventilation

Extreme Winter Cold Kills Bees

Extreme cold temperatures play a role in the death of some Winter beehives. In help their bees, beekeepers in areas of extreme weather learn how to prepare their bees for Winter cold.

Honey bees are cold blooded insects. If their body temperature drops too low they become sluggish and unable to move.  Unless the bees become warm quickly they will die.

Honey bees form a “cluster”. Thousands of bees that move close together in the hive – sharing warmth. Inside the hive, this cluster of bees must be able to generate enough heat to sustain life.

Also, they must have enough honey stores near the cluster to survive. If the clustered bees can not or will not move to stay in contact with food – they perish.

They will starve in place on the comb. Yes, your bees can die with a full box of honey on top but just out of reach.

This situation happens more often in times of severe cold – or a polar vortex that crosses the country and swings far to the south. Warmer days allow the cluster to reform near food. Days of extreme cold may prevent cluster movement.

Winter Deadouts – Small Colony Size

Because honey bees reproduce in a cyclic manner, colony populations will vary due to time of the year.

Larger populations in the Spring and Summer will fall to smaller Winter populations. This is normal bee behavior and mostly related to the genetics of the hive.

Some breeds of honey bees over Winter in a larger cluster. A large bee population is an asset to creating heat for survival. However, they will need more food to last until Spring or face starvation.

A colony with a very small population, faces the risk of the bees not being able to survive Winter’s cold temperatures.

How Many Bees Do You Need in a Hive for Winter?

Bee genetics and colony health play a role in the cluster size needed to keep the colony alive. Also, it depends on how low the thermometer drops and the duration of cold. Each hive is different.

The beekeeper’s goal is to have a good population of healthy worker bees – -going into the cold months. An unhealthy marginal size colony going into Winter is a dead-out waiting to happen.

Starvation Causes Dead Winter Hives

More colonies die from starvation in Winter than any other cause. Do I mean that the bees did not have enough honey to last during the season?

Yes, that is often true. But, a honey bee colony can starve to death with boxes of honey on the colony! As stated above, when the bees fail to move and stay in contact with food.

As the temperature drops, bees inside the colony cluster closely together. The outer edge of the cluster is always in contact with cells of stored honey.

During a period of warm days, the cluster moves a bit to remain in contact with honey. A larger cluster has the energy to move at cooler temperatures than a small cluster.

If a prolonged cold wave prevents the bees from moving, they may consume all of the honey in reach. The bees become unable to generate heat and freeze.

Even though they succumb to the cold, it is a lack of food that caused their deaths. So starvation is the culprit. 

In addition to very cold weather, there is another reason bees may not move to food.

If they have brood or bee larvae in the center of the cluster, they will often NOT leave the brood to reach honey.

What can a beekeeper do? We can not control where the cluster moves – or not. However, we can make sure our colonies are strong, healthy and well fed before cold arrives.

image of bees inside hive during winter day

Condensation Kills Many Winter Beehives

Some regions have more problems with hive condensation than others. This is another instance when your climate plays a role in your honey bee management.

A cluster of live bees, eating honey and generating heat, gives off moisture. The warm moisture rises to the top of the hive.

If the temperature is very cold outside, moisture can condensate on the underside of the hive top.

This causes water to drip down on the bees.  Most of the time bees can cope with cold temperatures. But wet, cold bees are dead bees.

Some beekeepers use quilt boxes and other strategies to absorb excess hive moisture.  I have not needed to do that in my area. 

However, it may be something to consider for your hives depending on where you live. Not all beekeepers need to wrap up hives during Winter.

If you live in an area that benefits from hive wrapping, be sure to allow for good ventilation. Even a Popsicle stick on the top box will raise the outer cover up just enough.

Keep in mind, we are not trying to keep the inside of the hive warm. We want to give the healthy colony a draft free space to live in during the cold of Winter.

How to Prevent Losing Winter Bee Colonies

We can not control all aspects of beekeeping. But, here are some tips to help reduce winter losses.

  • control varroa mites numbers – keep colonies healthy
  • evaluate brood patterns in early Fall – replace sub-par queens
  • combine colonies with very small populations before Winter
  • ensure that the hives are well stocked with food
  • wrap hives if needed for your climate but remember ventilation

This is where I rely on my beekeeping journal and notebook.  I may not remember what I did in each hive for Winter prep but my notes will remind me.

Losing Some Winter Hives is Normal

The sad truth is that having some dead beehives in Winter is a common thing for beekeepers. In recent years, the percentage of Winter colony losses has grown.

Twenty years ago a beekeeper might lose 10% of their colonies in Winter.  So, if you had 10 colonies you lose 1.  Today, it is not uncommon to lose 50% or more.  That’s half.

It is a loss but it is also a learning experience that can help you grow as a beekeeper. In time, with experience you should have a fewer beehives die over Winter.

Final Thoughts on Why Bees Die in Winter

Yes, individual honey bees do die over the long Winter months. Not every bee will make it to Spring.

However, the honey bee colony as a whole should be able to replace dying bees with new members as the end of Winter approaches.

Keeping your colonies healthy and well fed is your best defense against having beehives die in Winter.

Beekeeper Charlotte

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