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How do Bees Survive Winter?

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What do Honey Bees Do In Winter?

Different kinds of insects have different methods of over-wintering. In the case of the honey bee, it is a well known fact that they make and store honey. The over-Wintering plan of the honey bee has kept them alive for millions of years. How do honey bees survive Winter?

Honey bees hives in Winter snow as bees cluster inside to survive image.

Honey Bees make and store honey to serve as a food source during the cold winter months.  This requires a lot of work in the months leading up to Winter.

Before temperatures fall too low worker bees collect pollen and plant nectar at a frenzied pace. Bees transform nectar into honey which has a long storage capability. Survival of the colony depends on having enough food stored in hive.

Honey Bees in Winter – What do They Do?

Seeing bees flying around during Summer is a common site. So common, that we often fail to notice – until they are not there.

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?

honey bee hive in Winter snow - how honeybees survive winter

Sometimes colonies do fail but we beekeepers certainly hope to find those hives occupied come warm weather.

It is not uncommon 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.  We always worry the hive may be dead.

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.

Do Honey Bees Hibernate?

Some types of bees and wasps do not survive as a whole colony throughout the cold months. These insects use hibernation to survive from one season to the next.  These include the Bumble Bees, Yellow Jacket Wasps and many others.

In these bee families only the mated reproductive females survive. The males and workers belonging to the nest die once cold arrives. The Queen will build a new family when Spring 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

Honey bee colonies do not hibernate.  They stay inside warm inside the hive on cold days consuming stored honey to survive.

When everything works well, the colony does not die during winter. However, most of the individuals inside will not live to see Spring flowers.

Worker bees inside the Winter hive are different. They live longer than those born in Summer. But, eventually even these winter bees will reach the end of their life span.

As, the queen bee begins to lay eggs in late winter, the colony starts working toward population buildup. The replacements for the older dying members, prepares the colony for Spring growth.

Winter is primarily a time of waiting for the honey bee colony. Once warm weather arrives, the race is on to collect food needed by the hive.

What Temperature do Bees Stop Flying?

Because a honey bee colony survives winter without going into true hibernation, they may fly some days.  

On warm days, you may see them collecting pollen or nectar if any is available. But, you won’t see many of them flying around on a cold, brisk day.  

It is interesting to note that some honey bees fly on colder days. Yet, others in the same location stay inside the hive. Why would this happen? Genetics plays a role in cool weather flight.  Some colonies will forage with temperatures in the upper 50’s others do not.

At What Temperature do Bees Die?

How cold is too cold for bees?  Honey bees become sluggish once the temperature drops below 55 ° F.  They will die of hypothermia if their body temp falls to 45 ° F. 

Clustered together in the hive, the colony is able to maintain enough heat for survival. Only the brood nest area and the bees themselves need to maintain a sustainable temperature. Some areas of the hive interior can become colder.

Honey bees eating honey inside the winter hive image.

The Winter Cluster

Bee colonies are able to survive the cold Winter temperatures because of two management techniques. With these conditions in place, a healthy colony will live to see Spring.

  • proper food storage
  • enough workers to generate heat inside the cluster

Yes, honey bees generate heat but they need enough members to get the job done. (Can you imagine tiny space heaters inside the bee hive in winter ? Well don’t ! It doesn’t work exactly like that – but almost.)

They cluster tightly together inside the hive. If the hive has brood, the cluster forms around the brood nest. This cluster must stay in constant contact with honey.

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 fail 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.

How Honey Bees Generate Heat

Honey bees fly using special muscles to move their wings. These muscles move in a circular fashion that make bee flight possible.

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 ° Fahrenheit.

When you combine a lot of individuals doing this, heat generated can prevent the colony from perishing on a cold day.  But, they must consume a lot of honey to continue this activity.

image of free secrets of beekeeping book

Colony Works to Keep Early 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 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 brood on each side of the cell.

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 during a cold snap. 

Beekeepers who increase their hive numbers by making hive splits early in the year must keep this need in mind.

Beekeepers Prepare Hives for Winter

Winter beekeeping is more about preparation for winter during Fall – than actual Winter work.  The heater bees must have food and a lot of it.

Supplemental feeding in the Fall is common if the hive is not ready for Winter. Colonies that have enough honey stored do not need assistance.

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.

Some beekeepers purchase a thermal imaging camera . It is used 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.

Beekeepers in northern parts of the country face greater challenges. The winters are colder and longer. These beekeepers use a special bee hive winter wrap to insulate bee colonies.  

Sometimes, wrapping causes problems because the bee colony stays too warm without proper ventilation . Beehive ventilation is very important to the colony.  You can wrap them up too tight and cause your bee colony to die!

Do Not Try to Heat Beehives

It is 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 °F day will not get very far. She will certainly not make it back to the hive.

Final Words About Honey Bee Winter Survival

The plan for over Winter survival of honey bee colonies is a natural process. It has been going on for millions of years-it works most of the time. Unfortunately, our colonies today are not as healthy as they were years ago.

This lack of vigor and influx of new diseases and pests has taken a toil on winter survival rates. We also see fewer of other bee species making it through the cold season. Are they suffering from some of the same health issues as our honey bees?

Don’t be too quick to clean up every scrap of yard debris. There may be a bumble bee queen in there waiting for Spring. If you are a beekeeper, try to prepare your hives for Winter if they need assistance.

Bees will continue to do what they have been doing for millions of years.  No secret there – they are following their plan for Winter.

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26 Comments

  1. Angela Graybeal says:

    Loved your article I got my first beehive for Christmas and I am lookimg forward to working and helping save our bees. God bless and keep the articles coming I’m sure I’ll need all.the reading I can get.

  2. Angela, Thanks so much ! You will love beekeeping but it is challenging. Dont give up you are in for a great adventure. Beekeeper Charlotte

  3. Tammy Moravec says:

    I am a first year beekeeper, it has been interesting. I did loose one of my hives. I live in Wisconsin so winters are not the best for Bees. I ordered 2 more packages that will be here in April. I will be in South Carolina the last week in April for a reunion.

  4. Great Tammy. I’m so glad you are not giving up. Yes Wisconsin is much different than South Carolina in regards to weather. I hope you have some local friends who can help you with things that a specific to your climate. Hang in there !

  5. Norberto Adaglio says:

    I LIKE all your blogs; but since I am a carpenter you NEVER discuss plan to build beehives. I would like to know your preference .
    Thank you
    Bert

  6. Thank you Bert. Yes, I dont discuss how to build beehives must because for most people that is not an option. You as a carpenter might be the exception because you would understand the importance of using correct measurements. I like to build things. When I first started beekeeping I did build some hives. However, in my case I soon realized that it was more expensive to build them than to buy them unassembled and put them together. If I were building a hive today, I would still prefer the 10 frame langstroth hive and I would build it out of regular pine wood. If you decide to build, be sure to search for and find a good pattern and follow the dimensions.

  7. Roger Mitchell says:

    As a kid in the south I had family members that kept hives that I helped with. In 2006 I had to relocate to ct. From mid December to mid January this winter out temp averaged around zero degrees lows of 16 below to highs of 12 above. Winds and snow where brutal 30 40 mph winds snow ice entire time. Today now April 12th 2018 it’s 24f.
    I lost my colony during the deep freeze .

    1st Dec. They were fine and thriving mid Jan. Poof all gone I lost them one or two in bottom of hive many around the outside under hive entrance. I assume they had to take a cleansing flight and froze.

    This upcoming winter I am putting titanium aquarium heaters in my hive box’s to help them out a bit. And wondering if anyone had used heaters if so is there a better method to heat the hives a little. The titanium aquarium heaters come with digital thermostats to control temp.

    My only concern is should the heater be shrouded in a screen so bees can’t touch the heater itself ?

    Thanks for the article I considered heating the hive last fall as winters her are brutal and never knew anyone did add heat source

    Thanks for confirming the idea

  8. The absolutely best option is to talk to beekeepers in your climate. Find out what works for them. Here in the south it gets cold and we have beekeepers wanting to heat the bees. This usually causes more problems than it might fix. However, in an extreme climate you might find a way to make it work.

  9. Fascinating! Thank you.

  10. You are very welcome. I think understanding all that we can about bees is very important.

  11. Chris Piper says:

    Charlotte,
    I have learned so much from your weekly blogs as a new beekeeper! Thanks so much! As I prepare my hives for winter, I noticed on my last hive inspection that the medium super on top of the brood box does not seem to have enough honey stores. The bees do not seem to be collecting enough nectar/pollen to fill all the frames. Only 3 of the 10 frames have been filled. I have given them some sugar water. What do you suggest if only a few frames are filled with honey by the time low temps arrive? I did not do any honey extraction so as to leave enough honey for the bees to make it thru their first winter.

  12. Hi Chris, You have given them some sugar water? Thats good. I would feed, feed, feed until cold weather – dont let the feeder go dry.

  13. This is my first year of being a bee keeper. We recieved our first snow and the bees are still coming out of the hive. Is this natural? Could I have done something wrong? I do have a bottom scran board that I am using but I took out the board and put in a peace of insulation board to block out the cold. I have left a ventalation hole and I have installed a mouse gaurd at the entrance of the hive. I have also enstalled a roof over the entrance so snow will not build up and I have made a 1/4 inch gap on the top cover for more ventalation. Please give me advise. Oh I live in New York State so it does get cold. Please email me

  14. I had a beehive and it was doing great but I checked on it again today (I have not opened my hive all winter) and the queen was just outside their entrance dead and all of the other bees where inside and clumped together still but Frozen in place dead they were still soft and I can’t any reason why this happened.

  15. So many things could be the problem. The top 2 possibilities, the cluster was too small (too few bees) to maintain enough heat for life and/or they ran out of honey within reach of the cluster during cold weather and starved/froze.

  16. Can you put a screen over the entrance in winter to keep them in and alive

  17. You always talk about leaving sufficient honey for winter. That’s great if you know how much “sufficient” is. I love the information you give I guess I need bee keeping for idiots.

  18. LOL. Well we all need that version sometimes Barbara. Or at least I do. The problem is that “enough honey” is highly dependent on where you live. A hive in South Georgia would have much different needs than one in New York State. In general, 2 boxes : 1 deep and 1 other box for the bees with the top box full of honey before Winter arrives. The size of that top box… depends on your location.

  19. How do you know when to stop feeding? We have been feeding since Aug and the bees are still drinking a quart of sugar water (2 part sugar to 1 part water) a day. I opened the hive on Saturday/28 Sep and the top deep box is 80% full of honey and the brood box is a mixture of honey and brood and is about 70% full.

  20. I feed until the top box is full or the weather gets so cold the bees stop taking the syrup.

  21. I’m in eastern NC. I’ve seen some folks put pine shavings in their hive top feeders to add insulation. Is this necessary in my region? Thank you.

  22. No, not really – they actually absorb extra moisture more so than insulate. BUT it wont hurt anything just in a case we have bitter cold.

  23. My bees left the hive one day before our 1st cold snap 15f, at the time they left the temperature was in the low 50’s Fahrenheit. There’s plenty of honey in the super and the main hive box is full of honey as well. There may be a couple dozen dead bees in bottom of hive box. Is this unusual? Will anything survive in the brood combs this winter? This is in West Virginia.

  24. Chances are they will not survive. This sounds like absconding if there were a large number of bees there one day and all gone the next. We don’t always understand why this happens. If you have not checked them in a few weeks and they were a small population, sometimes they don’t leave but are killed out by other bees. Then the Yellow Jacket Wasps take away some of the dead. Your comb should be okay as long as there is no disease but I would freeze it and then store for next Spring.

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