Where do Honey Bees Go in Winter?

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The world of bees looks very different during the cold months. So, where do bees go in Winter – we miss their visits to the garden? In this exploration into the life of bees, we will learn the survival tactics that bees use to ensure that we can enjoy their buzz next Spring.

Bee hive in winter snow where honey bees go to survive.

Of course, I must focus on my favorite – the honey bees. Similar in many respects to their “bee cousins” – it is a well-known fact that honey bees have a different strategy for surviving Winter.

Do Bees Hibernate?

The idea of hibernation may bring to mind a family of fat bears, snug in their Winter home during the cold months. Some insects that hibernate perform a similar process – lady bugs for instance will cluster under bark, or piles of leaves in a semi-hibernation state.

But for the most part, hibernation is different for bees. Most bee species, including bumble bees, yellow jacket wasps, hornets, carpenter bees, and many solitary bees, do not survive as whole colonies through the winter.

In these families, only the mated reproductive females survive. The queens hibernate alone under bark, or ground debris. The males and workers belonging to the nest die once cold arrives.

The queens spend the cold months in a type of deep sleep or period of inactivity. This form of hibernation helps them survive (or at least their genetics) from one season to the next. A new nest is built in spring for a new family.

Empty winter hornet nest abandoned image.

Honey Bee Winter Survival

However, honey bee colonies do not hibernate. Though honey bees are insects, their Winter survival strategy is quite different.

On cold days all members of the honey bee colony remain inside the hive. They are not in a true hibernation stupor and may fly outside on warm days to feast on a few Winter flowers.

How are they able to keep so many colony members warm and alive? Bee colonies are able to live during the cold season due to some special techniques. When everything works right – with a little luck – the healthy colony will live to see Spring.

Colonies Prepare for Winter

The hive is a frenzy of activity in the months leading up to Winter. Before temperatures fall too low worker bees collect resources needed by the colony non-stop.

Bees make honey from collected plant nectar. This stable food source will keep for a long time without spoiling.

The amount of honey needed for the hive depends on several factors including climate and hive population. Proper food storage and plenty of healthy bees in the population is very important.

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The Dynamic Winter Bee Cluster

As temperatures drop, bees inside the hive move closer and closer together. They form a roundish mass of bees in and among the combs of the hive. If the hive has brood (developing bees), the cluster forms around the brood nest.

The colder the weather, the tighter the bees cluster together to conserve heat. Throughout the months of the Winter season, the cluster will slowly move to stay in contact with food.

Honey located several frames away is no good – some members of the cluster must be able to reach food. This is why sometimes even a colony with abundant stores can still starve.

If prolonged cold weather causes the cluster to be unable to move – the colony may still die with honey just a few frames away!

A large population of honey bees in the winter hive breaking cluster on a warm day image.

Heater Bees

The bee cluster is a great strategy for conserving warmth – but it is not enough alone. Honey bees generate heat.

When honey bees fly, they use special muscles to move their wings. Inside the hive, they are able to unhook their wings but still flex those muscles. (Similar to you holding your foot on the car brake and racing the engine). This muscle flexing or shivering generates heat.

A honey bee can heat her body up to 111° Fahrenheit. If many individuals are doing this, the heat generated can sustain the colony during the cold days. But, heater bees must consume a lot of honey to continue this activity.

Keeping Brood Warm

Heat production becomes even more important in very early Spring. The colony begins raising young bees in late Winter/early Spring.

These babies (bee brood) must be maintained at a warm temperature for development to occur. The center cluster temps goes from 85°F with no brood to 93°F with brood present.

A heater bee (which can be any worker) will sit on top of a beeswax cell containing young. She will vibrate her abdomen and flex her flight muscles to generate heat.

Also, heater bees can go inside an empty cell and generate heat. This warms the brood on each side of the honeycomb. But, this ingenious system does have its limits.

Bitter cold may kill a colony that does not have a population large enough to generate life sustaining heat. 

Beekeepers who increase their hive numbers by making hive splits early in the year must keep this need in mind. Small colonies with too few bees are in danger.

Special Winter Bees

Another Winter survival technique, worker bees produced during late Fall are different than their Summer sisters.

These fat Winter bees have increased fat reserves that helps them live longer and sustain the colony until Spring. In fact, these Winter worker bees live much longer a normal bee life span (6 months – vs 6 weeks.)

Honey bees clustered inside hives in winter snow.

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Role of Beekeepers in Winter Bee Care

If the beekeeper is lucky, the hives will not need much help to get ready for the cold season. Proper winterizing of hives takes place during Fall.

If food stores are low, some colonies may require extra Fall feeding. The heater bees must have enough food.

Feeding bees in Winter can be done but Fall preparation is best. Beekeeping in winter involves knowing when to “help and when to leave things alone.

Repeat after me. I must not open my bee hives in winter cold. Unless you are an experienced beekeeper with a darn good reason. Don’t open your bee hives in winter when temps are cold.

Be mindful of pests and disease that can affect the vitality of your colonies. Honey bees that are infested with heavy loads of varroa mites are less likely to survive the long cold months. Your hives should be as healthy as possible before cold arrives.

Row of bee hives in Winter snow image.
My bee hives in a Carolina winter snow.. They may look empty but thousands of bees are surviving inside the hive – I hope LOL

Beekeeper Insights

When we see beehives sitting quietly in the snow, our curiosity is captured. Is anyone alive inside there or have they left or died out?

It is not uncommon to see a beekeeper with an ear firmly placed against the side of the hive- listening for any sound. Come on beekeepers, admit it. We always worry the hive may be dead.

You can use a thermal imaging camera to take “heat” pictures. This lets the beekeeper know that the colony is still alive and how big the cluster (population) might be. Alas, I do not own one – but… maybe someday.

Helpful Tips

  • if you live in a very cold climate – consider providing extra insulation with a special bee hive winter wrap.
  • pay attention to proper hive ventilation to protect bees from excessive internal hive moisture. You can wrap them up too tight and cause your bee colony to die.
  • do not try to heat beehives – Even if you could keep the internal hive temperature warm, a bee who flies out on a 30 °F day will not get very far. She will certainly not make it back to the hive.
  • check with local beekeeping associations in your area to learn more about local conditions
Honey bee in Winter snow unable to fly in cold image.

FAQs

Why do we not see honey bees outside on cold days?

Well, there would be very little food available for them to harvest. And, these cold blooded insects will die if they become chilled.

Why do honey bees not hibernate?

Honey bees have special strategies that allow them to overwinter as a family unit over the cold months of the year. They share warmth and survive on stored honey.

At what temperature do bees stop flying?

You are not likely to see a honey bee flying if the temperature is below 55°F. However, Bumble bees are know to forage in cooler temperatures. Even among honey bee colonies – some of them will forage at cooler temperatures than others. It is genetics at work.

At what temperature do bees die?

Honey bees become sluggish once the temperature drops below 55° F. They will die of hypothermia if their body temp falls to 45° F. Bumble bees can fly at slightly colder temperatures.

Final Thoughts

In the world of bees, some species depend on the hibernating mated queen for the next generation – like Bumble bees and wasps. But, honey bees prefer to keep the entire family intact from Fall to Spring. This plan has been going on for millions of years-it works most of the time.

Don’t be too quick to clean up every scrap of yard debris and dried leaves. There may be a bumble bee queen in there waiting for Spring. The next season will arrive and all bees will be ready to come out and start a new year!