Bee Hives in Winter
Honey Bees Survive the Cold – Usually
What happens inside bee hives in winter ? Are there any bees inside this hive ? Are my honey bees hibernating and dreaming of Spring flowers?
How do honey bees survive winter cold? Most parts of the country don’t have blooming flowers in January. Do bees die in winter ? Not naturally, the colony should live from season to season. The story of how honey bees survive winter is an interesting one. Lets take a look at the survival tactics used by honey bees.
How Honey Bees Prepare For Cold
Honey bees communicate food location by the use of dances. And, we are all familiar with the method of food storage used by honey bees. Nectar gathered from blooming flowers is transformed into honey. Honey can be used for months or years afterward to meet the food needs of the colony.
It is also common knowledge that you won’t see many honey bees flying around on a cold day. Honey Bees survive winter without going into true hibernation. They will fly outside on warm days and stay inside the hive if it is cold. With proper food reserves, bee hives in winter become a snug location to spend those cold winter days.
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Do Honey Bees Die in Winter?
When everything works well, a honey bee colony does not die during winter. Many of the bees will survive to help the colony grow next Spring.
Most animals (including humans) are warm-blooded. We generate heat within our bodies to keep our blood and tissues at a constant temperature. Our systems have mechanisms to cool or warm ourselves (within reason). We sweat when we become too hot. Our bodies shiver when we are too cold.
Most insects (including honeybees) are cold-blooded. Cold-blooded creatures have a wider variety of body/blood temperatures. Their systems can survive a hotter body temperature than mammals. However, when they cool down – they become slow and sluggish. Their muscles do not receive the energy needed to move fast. Yet, healthy honey bee colonies do not die during winter. Bee hives in Winter become tiny bee sanctuaries. Honey Bees have a fascinating system to combat winter cold.
What is Happening Inside Bee Hives in Winter?
So, how do these cold-blooded honey bees survive winter ? What is happening in the bee hives in winter ? Honey bees are able to survive the cold temperatures because of two management techniques. During the time of blooming flowers, honey bees will store a large amount of honey. This honey serves as a food source when none other is available. And, 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.)
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.
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. In early Spring, bees will begin raising young. These babies must be maintained at a warm temperature for development to occur. While some bees are out foraging for pollen and nectar or performing other hive duties, others will act as “heater bees”. The heater bee will sit on top of a honeycomb cell containing young. She will vibrate her abdomen and flex her wing muscles to generate heat. This is also one reason the queen will leave some honeycomb cells empty. A heater bee can go inside an empty cell and generate heat . This warms the baby bees on each side. The same process saves the bees inside the bee hives in winter.
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. I always worry about small population colonies heading into winter. 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.
Preparing Honey Bees for Winter
Now we must talk about the number one challenge. 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. You do not want to be feeding honey bees during winter. Plan ahead.
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. 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.
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.
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 it can cause problems because the bee colony stays too warm. This causes them to eat more and face the possibility of running out of food. 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.
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. What can we beekeepers do ? The bees try to maintain heat in the “brood nest area”. They do not heat the whole inside of the hive. The bee hives in winter will be warmer inside than the outside temperature. However, it is within the bee cluster itself that the magic happens allowing the honey bees to survive.
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 inside your bee hives in winter on a warm day to confirm they have honey. If they do not, implement emergency winter feeding.