Winter Bees – Fat, Healthy & Long-Lived
Getting beehive through Winter can be challenging for beekeepers. This is especially true for the novice to keeping honey bees. Thankfully, nature has given the colony strategies to survive the cold months. This is done by raising special Winter bees that are a bit different than their Summer sisters.
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. 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 baby bees and soon! Spring is coming and our bee colonies want to be ready.
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 – it 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.
Honeybees survive winter through a remarkable process that allows them to generate heat.
But to do this well, the colony needs 2 things. They need plentiful stores of food and the right kind of bees. The colony with a good population of fat Winter bees has the best chance for survival.
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.
Of course we are talking about the Honey bee here – my favorite bee. Honey bees overwinter as a colony-while in many other bee families (like all the Bumbles) only the mated queen lives until Spring.
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.
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 body parts fail, they are finished.
The tasks of Winter bees are different and 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 during Winter. Most 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.
Otherwise, the colony would fail before enough new bees emerge in February/March to sustain the colony.
Because some the 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. 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 (raising young) without as much pollen.
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.
If your colony is low on honey stores in late Summer, feed them and consider a feed supplement if needed.
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 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 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.
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.