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Why Beekeepers Want Fat Winter Bees

Getting beehives through Winter can be challenging. Thankfully, nature has given the colony strategies to survive the cold months. One strategy is raising special fat Winter bees-that are a bit different than their Summer sisters. Understanding the importance of having colonies filled with new bees in the Fall is vital to good Winter survival rates.

Fat Bees for Winter

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, only a small amount of bee brood is present but the cycle has began. It may be late January with snow on the ground and cold winds blowing, but the beehive is full of life.

Winter beehives in snow and macro of worker honey bee image.

And, that’s a very good thing. Our hives need a population of new baby bees and soon! Spring is coming and our colonies want to be ready. The Spring workforce needs weeks to mature before they are able to take advantage of the early bloom.

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What do Honey Bees do During Winter?

Honey bees do not do very much during Winter-in regions with cold weather. The honey bee is an insect that is cold-blooded. They are not very active when the temperatures fall into the lower 50’s F.

The colony survives throughout the cold months by clustering together inside the hive and eating stored honey.

In fact, honeybee survival through winter is a remarkable process. It allows them to generate some heat. But to do this well, the colony needs 3 things.

They need plentiful stores of food, a good population of bees and the right kind of bees. Healthy fat Winter bees give the colony its best chance for survival.

Winter bees clustered inside hive during cold image.

What are Winter Bees?

Winter bees is the term used to describe the female worker bees that are produced in late Fall and usually live until late Winter/early Spring. They can survive for 5 -6 months – an unusual old age for a worker bee.

Honey bees overwinter as a colony-while in many other bee families (like all the Bumbles) only the mated queen lives until Spring. Even with a reduced work load due to fewer flowers, the colony still needs many members to maintain life in the hive.

Winter Bees vs Summer Bees

Winter Bees are different than Summer Bees. The worker destined to live out the Winter months in the hive has a different set of duties.

A worker reared in the warm months of the year, lives for about 6 weeks. The first 3 weeks are spent on duties inside the hive, the last 3 are spent foraging for food. And, collecting all the resources needed by the colony.

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.

Honey bees do not repair broken parts through cell repair. Once their bee body parts fail, they are finished.

The tasks of Winter bees are not as focused on gathering food. They can live up to 6 months. They spend most of their lives inside the hive. Foraging outside the hive is not a major Winter task.

Instead, these bees spend time tending to the queen bee 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.

Colony Population Falls During Winter

In late Fall-Winter, fewer eggs are laid by most queens. Brood rearing is greatly reduced and many queen bees will cease egg production for several weeks.

With few new bees being produced, the number of adult bees in the colony will slowly drop. Winter workers must live longer than their warm season sisters.

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Otherwise, the colony would fail before enough new bees emerge in February/March to sustain the colony.

By mid-Winter on the calendar more older bees are reaching the end of their life cycle. Population growth must get under way before warm weather arrives.

Role of Fat Bodies in Honey Bee Health

Bees that live during Winter are physiologically different than honey bees produced in Summer. Winter bees 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 (raising young) without as much pollen. A good thing if the colony is low on stored bee bread.

Nurse bees with large fat bodies are not required to eat as much pollen to produce food for the growing young. The quality of jelly fed to larva is determined by the vitellogenin levels of the nurse bees.

While checking your colony for honey stores in late Fall, also check the pollen stores. Likely the bees will have all they need but it is a good idea to check.

Fresh bee brood in the Winter hive, larva and eggs image.

When Are Winter Bees Born?

During Fall, the honey bee colony is very busy foraging for last minute food provisions. The bees must collect nectar and pollen while they can. During the Winter months, the focus of the 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. (September-October) 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).

How Long Will Fat Winter Bees Live?

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 can be 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 nurse bees are unable to provide sufficient food to new larva. This 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 gives plenty of time to have healthy nurse bees rearing the next generation. Lack of healthy nurses to raise healthy fat winter bees is not something that can be put off until Fall. Be proactive.

Dead honey bee image.

Strive to have a healthy population of bees in the hive raising your long lived Winter bees. Workers with good honey bee fat bodies will do the best job of sustaining the colony until Spring.

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.

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