Winter Bees – Fat, Healthy & Long-Lived
When the calendar says we have a few more months of Winter, the honey bees have a different plan. Inside the hive, worker winter bees are raising babies. Perhaps a small amount of brood is present but the cycle has began. If you have been keeping honey bees for a while, you know this is a good sign that Spring is coming.
It may be late January with snow on the ground and cold winds blowing, but the bee hive is full of life. And, that’s a very good thing. Our hives need a population of new bees and soon! Spring is coming and our bee colonies want to be ready.
Because some the older bees are reaching the end of their life cycle. Population growth must get under way before warm weather arrives.
What do Worker Bees Do in Winter?
You see, Winter Bees are different than Summer Bees. The tasks performed by the worker bees during their lives are different as well.
In late Fall-Winter, fewer eggs are laid so there are less babies. Brood rearing is greatly reduced during Winter. Most queen bees will cease egg production for several weeks.
Though some only take a short break in egg laying. Bees cluster around the queen to keep warm and protect any present brood.
With no new bees being produced, the number of adult bees in the colony will slowly drop over Winter. These worker bees need to live longer than their Summer sisters.
Otherwise, the colony would fail before new bees emerge in February/March. Any colony needs a minimum sized population to survive until warmer weather. The colony achieves this goal by rearing bees that a just a little bit different from our normal workers.
Duties of Summer Bees vs Winter Bees
If you are a worker bee that lives in the warm months of the year, you will enjoy about 6 weeks of life. The first 3 weeks are spent on duties inside the hive, the last 3 are spent foraging for food.
Summer worker bees literally work themselves to death for the benefit of the colony. Wings become tattered and the fuzzy hairs wear off their bodies. Yet they continue to work until death.
Honey bees do not repair broken parts through cell repair. Once their body parts fail, they are finished.
The tasks of Winter bees are different. They spend most of their lives inside the hive. Foraging outside the hive is not important during Winter.
Most nectar and pollen sources are unavailable during cold weather. And the cold-blooded bees cannot fly in cold temperatures.
Instead, these bees spend time tending to the queen and helping regulate hive temperatures. This is a vital task for the colony but does not wear out body parts as quickly as foraging.
Once brood rearing resumes, they care for brood to produce new spring bees. These new bees will carry the colony into the new season.
Physically Different Fall Bees
Bees that live during Winter are physiologically different than honey bees produced in Summer. They have enlarged fat bodies in their abdomens. .
These fat bodies produce vitellogenin. Vitellogenin increases the lifespan of bees and boosts their immune systems.
Bees with high levels of vitellogenin are able to store protein reserves. This enables the colony to begin brooding up without a lot of pollen. Nurse bees with large fat bodies are not required to eat as much pollen to produce brood food.
The quality of jelly fed to larva is determined by the vitellogenin levels of the nurse bees.
When Are Winter Bees Born?
Brood rearing slows or stops completely during the winter months. The focus of the honey bee colony changes from growth to survival.
Researchers disagree on the exact trigger for the production of bees intended for the Winter hive.
But the production of healthy winter bees takes place during the last few brood cycles of the year. The exact time will vary somewhat depending on your climate.
As brood rearing slows in the Fall, emerging bees consume an extra quantity of pollen. This protein is stored in their bodies (Fat Bodies). Honey bees also store pollen in their honeycomb for use during Winter.
Healthy Cold Weather Bees are Vital
Even bees designed for life during the cold months don’t last forever. Fat bodies located inside the bee will shrink once brood feeding begins.
The health and lifespan of your winter bees is affected by nutrition deficiencies and heavy varroa infestations.
Studies have found that colonies with varroa mite infestations do not fully develop into typical long-lived Winter bees.
Poor quality bees are unable to provide sufficient food to new larva. They will also die sooner and may result in the colony perishing before the end of Winter.
This is yet another reason to get varroa mites well under control before Winter bees are produced.
In my part of South Carolina, I want to have successful varroa mite treatments completed prior to August 15. This give plenty of time to have healthy nurse bees rearing the next generation.
Strive to have healthy nurse bees in the hive raising your long lived cold season bees. Good nurses will produce good Winter bees with well-developed fat bodies.
If varroa are a problem in your hives, treat early. Waiting until late Fall may kill the varroa on the bees .However, the damage has already been done and you may be going into Winter with skinny bees.
It is a happy beekeeper who has a good population of fat, healthy winter bees.