Understanding Bee Hives & Colonies in Winter – Updated
Have you ever wondered, what happens inside bee hives in winter? Are there any bees alive inside this hive ? I don’t see them flying every day. What are they doing in there? Why don’t the bees fly out of the hive? These questions plague those new to bees.
In fact, it is not rare to see a beekeeper out in the bee yard with an ear firmly placed against the side of the hive. Listening for any sound, come on beekeepers, admit it. A better understanding of bee behavior will give you a behind the scenes view.
The answers to our questions of what happens inside bee hives in winter revolves around temperature. Bees are cold blooded insects. They can not sustain life when exposed to cold weather. So the bees (in this case honey bees) have a survival plan.
When honey bees cluster inside the Winter hive, they give off heat. Beekeepers who have a thermal imaging camera are able to take “heat” pictures/readings of the hive.
This lets the beekeeper know that the colony is still alive and how big the cluster (population) might be. I have used one of these cameras and it is great fun! Alas, I do not own one – but… maybe someday.
How Do Honey Bees Survive Winter?
Some types of bees and wasps do not survive as a whole colony throughout the cold months. These insects hibernate. Only the mated reproductive females survive to build a new family when Spring arrives. (Learn more about bee hibernation here).
Honey bee colonies do not hibernate. When every thing works according to plan, the majority of the bee colony members survive Winter. And begin to grow in population throughout late Winter and into Spring.
This gives them a large workforce to begin with as more nectar and pollen become available. The hive boxes look still and quite in the Winter cold. But this does not mean that you will find no life inside the beehive in Winter.
Honey Bees Do Not Hibernate During Winter
Do bees stay inside their hive during winter? Yes, if the temps are cold they do. But, honey bees survive winter without going into true hibernation. They will fly outside on warm days.
You won’t see many honey bees flying around on a cool, brisk day. Genetics play a role in cool weather flight. Some honey bees will forage with temperatures in the upper 50’s others do not.
Honey bees are cold-blooded insects and need warm temperatures to fly well. If they do not stay inside the bee hives on cold days, they become quickly chilled and die.
This happens to some of my bees after a snow. The sunshine returns and warms the hive enough for the bees to think it is safe. Unfortunately, some do not get very far. The sight of dead bees in the snow is rather sad.
With proper food reserves and a good population of healthy bees, bee hives in winter become a snug location for the bees to wait for Spring. It may look as if nothing much is happening but that is not necessarily true.
What Temperature Kills Bees?
How cold is too cold for honey bees? They become sluggish once the temperature drops below 55 degrees F . They will die of hypothermia if their body temp falls to 45 degrees F. But our honey bees do not have to heat the entire inside of the hive. Their special clustering habit enables survival-more on this to come.
How Do Honey Bees Survive Winter?
Honey Bees Prepare For Cold
Bees have a remarkable system for colony survival. They store honey to serve as a food source during the cold winter months. But, they have to find and collect a lot of nectar to make honey. We are all familiar with this method of food storage used by honey bees.
Nectar gathered from blooming flowers is transformed into honey. Nectar in its raw form has a high water content and would spoil quickly. This is why the bees must convert that nectar into honey.
Honey is nectar that has undergone some major changes. Ripe honey is very different from watery nectar and has a low water content. Honey can be used for months or years afterward to meet the food needs of the colony.
Beekeepers and bee lovers in general can help bees by planting flowers. Not just any flowers. The pollinators need plants that provide nectar, pollen or both. The goal is to something blooming all season.
Weather and other conditions affect food collection. But, the bees will stand a better chance of having ample food stores if they have a diverse collection of food source flowers. This is especially true in the Fall when bees are storing food for Winter.
Stored Honey Is A Major Factor of Bee Hive Over-Wintering Success
The bee colony works together to find good nectar sources, tell the other worker bees where the food is and then collect the bounty. The bee hive is a superb example of teamwork.
Full combs of honey inside the bee hives in winter, increases any colony’s survival chances. The bees work really hard to store away as much food as possible.
Honey production is one of the reasons we love bees. And, bees like to make honey. In most cases, honey bees make enough to share with us. Sometimes, a greedy beekeeper takes too big of a share of honey. This leaves the bee colony in peril.
The amount of honey needed by the colony will depend on their climate. Honey bee colonies in regions with long winters will need more stored honey than southern regions. And the amount of food needed for Winter will vary somewhat between different colonies. Just like us, some eat more than others.
Do Honey Bees Die in Winter – The Colony?
Unlike a Bumble Bee or Wasp, the honey bee family is designed to over-Winter as a family unit. When everything works well, a honey bee colony does not die during winter.
The individual worker bees inside the colony live longer than summer bees. Many of the bees will survive to help the colony grow next Spring. But, these winter bees will eventually die.
After a brief slow down or shut down of egg laying, the queen will become active again. As, the queen bee begins to lay eggs late winter, the colony begins working toward population buildup.
The new bees provide replacement workers for the older dying members of the colony. It also prepares the colony for the population growth needed in Spring.
How Honey Bees Heat The Bee Hive in Winter
Honey bees are able to survive the cold Winter temperatures because of two management techniques. Honey bees store a large amount of surplus honey. Honey serves as a food source when none other is available. And as I mentioned earlier, honey doesn’t spoil.
The second survival technique- honey bees generate heat. (Can you imagine tiny space heaters inside the bee hive in winter ? Well don’t ! It doesn’t work exactly like that – but almost.)
The bees cluster together inside the hive. This cluster must stay in constant connection with honey. Honey located several frames away is no good if the bee cluster can not reach it.
Honey Bees Generate Heat
Yes, it’s true in addition to all of their other wonderful qualities. Honey bees can produce heat. Even though, it is not a great amount of warmth, it is enough to sustain life as long as the population is large enough.
Honey bees fly using special muscles to move their wings. When 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 generates heat.
A honey bee can heat her body up to 111 degrees Fahrenheit. When you combine a lot of bees doing this, heat generated can prevent the colony from perishing on a cold day. But the bees must consume a lot of honey to continue this activity.
Heater Bees Are Cool – (metaphorically speaking)
Yes, we call the bees who are generating heat – heater bees. Any bee of any age can serve as a heater bee. Heat production becomes even more important in very early Spring. The colony begins raising young bees. These babies 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.
How Bees Keep Early Brood Warm Inside the Winter Hive
A heater bee (which can be any bee) will sit on top of a honeycomb cell containing young. She will vibrate her abdomen and flex her wing muscles to generate heat. Also, heater bees can go inside an empty cell and generate heat . This warms the baby bees on each side.
The ingenious system does have its limit. Bitter cold may kill a colony that does not have enough bees to generate life sustaining heat during a cold snap. Brood rearing starts in late Winter when it is still cold outside. The colony uses stored honey and pollen for the new babies.
Even here in the mild South, we have cold days & nights that can kill a bee colony. If a colony has a good population of healthy worker bees and a lot of honey, they are in good shape for the winter ahead. But I always monitor my colonies food reserves in late Winter/Early Spring. (mid Jan – April)
Beekeeping In Winter
Beekeeping in Winter is more about preparation for winter during Fall. The heater bees must have food and a lot of it. Each year new beekeepers are shocked by the amount of honey a hungry bee colony can consume.
Preparing bees for winter is an important part of bee management. Supplemental feeding in the Fall is common. We really do not want to open the Winter hive without a darn good reason.
How much food do the bees need to survive winter ? That is a good question and the answer varies somewhat from year to year. Weather plays an important role in honey consumption. If the temps are warmer, the bees will be more active and eat more.
This is why we often say that “all beekeeping is local”. Methods that work in upstate South Carolina wont work in Montana. Beekeepers helping other beekeepers in their area helps save colonies.
Do You Really Need to Open that Winter Bee Hive?
This cute sign is meant to keep others out of your beehive yard. However in Winter, we beekeepers might consider taking this advice. 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.
Even a quick inspection can stress the colony. The honey bees will have sealed all the cracks between the hive boxes. If you pry apart hive parts, you are destroying all their hard work. Cold winter winds are able to penetrate the hive. Please don’t chill your bees.
Prep Of Winter Bee Hives Depends on Location
Beekeepers in northern parts of the country face greater challenges. The winters are colder and longer. Most beekeepers use a special bee hive winter wrap to insulate bee colonies. Here in South Carolina, it is not necessary to wrap colonies in special materials to hold in heat.
Sometimes, wrapping causes problems because the bee colony stays too warm without proper ventilation . This causes them to eat more and face the possibility of running out of food. Ventilation is very important to the colony. You can wrap them up to tight!
Heating Bee Hives in Winter is Not a Good Idea
It is also inadvisable to heat the hive with lights, heaters etc. Even if you could keep the internal hive temperature warm, a bee who flies out on a 30 degree day will not get very far. She will certainly not make it back to the hive.
The beekeeper should make sure the hive is supplied with ample food stores and protected according to their climate. Install wind breaks if needed. Bee survival is a tricky thing that we cant always control.
More Bees Die During Winter – Bee Vitality Has Decreased
How honey bees survive winter is a natural process that has been going on for millions of years. Nature has a plan for providing food and heat. Unfortunately, our bees today are not as healthy as they were years ago. This results in more bee colonies failing to survive winter – even here in the south.
Equalizing Hive Strength And Monitoring Food
I match my bee population to my hive. A small population of bees is placed in a smaller hive. Always leave the bees more honey than you think they will need and check bee hives in winter on a warm day to confirm they have honey. If they do not, implement emergency winter feeding.
Spring will come and some colonies will not survive. (More info on winter hives) But, we beekeepers will do our best for the bees. And bees will continue to do what they have been doing for millions of years. No secret there – they are being bees.