How Bees Survive the Winter Cold
Being a cold blooded insect, how do bees survive Winter‘s cold temperatures? Obviously, they have a survival plan because we see bees each Spring. Different kinds of bees have different methods of getting through the cold months. In the case of the honey bee, their method of food storage is a well known bee fact. The whole honey bee colony can overwinter inside the hive munching on stored honey.
Inside the Winter Beehive – What do Bees 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. Are there any honey bees alive inside there?
I don’t see them flying every day. What are they doing in there? But honestly, you don’t see many (any) bees foraging in the cold of Winter.
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. We always worry the hive may be dead.
Honey bees are in fact insects. And, these cold blooded insects can not forage in cold temperatures.
So what do they do? Many answers about Winter bee activities revolve around temperatures.
A honey bee colony over-Winters as a unit. And, they have developed an amazing plan for survival. A cluster of bees all standing close together – gives off heat.
Some beekeepers have 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.
Do Honey Bees Hibernate?
Some types of bees and wasps do not survive as a whole colony throughout the cold months.
These insects hibernate. These include the Bumble Bees, Yellow Jacket Wasps and many others.
In these bee families only the mated reproductive females survive. The Queen will build a new family when Spring arrives.
Honey bee colonies do not hibernate. When every thing works according to plan, the majority of the honey bee colonies survive Winter.
The hive population will drop over the course of the cold months. But, they are ready to grow in population beginning in late Winter and into Spring.
This gives the colony a large workforce to begin the season as more nectar and pollen become available.
The hive boxes may look still and quite in the Winter cold. But there is life inside the Winter hive.
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. But, 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. They need warmer 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.
For the kinds of bees that do not live in large colonies, the mated queens overwinter in piles of leaves – or under tree bark. These bumble bees and wasps will awaken in the spring to begin new nests.
What Temperature Kills Bees?
How cold is too cold for honey bees? They become sluggish once the temperature drops below 55 degrees F . Bees will die of hypothermia if their body temp falls to 45 degrees F.
Our bees are able to generate some heat. However, they do not heat the entire inside of the hive.
Only the brood nest area and the bees themselves need to maintain a sustainable temperature.
Honey Bees Prepare for Winter
Honey Bees store honey to serve as a food source during the cold winter months. Their survival depends on having enough honey stored in the right locations.
This requires a lot of work in the months leading up to Winter. Nectar gathered from thousands of blooming flowers is brought to the hive.
Bees transform nectar into honey which has a long storage capability. Honey is a perfect long term food for bees to store.
Planting Flowers for Bees Can Help
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.
Does the Colony Have Enough Food?
Producing enough honey for the bee colony to survive Winter is not always easy. This is true even when many plants are in flowers.
Honey production is one of the reasons we love bees. 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 colonies eat more than others.
Do all Honey Bees Die in Winter ?
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. However, most of the individual bees inside will not live to see Spring flowers.
The individual worker bees inside the Winter hive live longer than Summer bees. But, these winter honey bees will eventually die.
As, the queen bee begins to lay eggs in late winter, the colony begins working toward population buildup.
These 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.
The Winter Cluster of Bees
Honey bees are able to survive the cold Winter temperatures because of two management techniques.
With these to conditions in place, a healthy colony of bees will live to see Spring.
- proper food storage
- enough bees to generate heat in 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.)
The bees cluster together inside the hive. 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 a colony with abundant stores can still starve.
If prolonged cold weather causes the cluster to fail to move – the bees may still die with honey just a few frames away!
How Honey Bees Generate Heat
Honey bees fly using special muscles to move their wings. These muscles move in a way 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 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.
Bees Must Keep Early Brood Warm
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.
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.
Help Bees Prepare 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.
Each year new beekeepers are shocked by the amount of honey a hungry bee colony can consume.
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.
Do You Really Need to Open that Winter Bee Hive?
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.
Winterizing Beehives Techniques -Location, 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!
Do Not Try to Heat Beehives
The beekeeper should make sure the hive is supplied with ample food stores and protected according to their climate.
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 degree day will not get very far. She will certainly not make it back to the hive.
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.
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.
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?
Winter Bee Survival is the Plan
Always leave your honey bees more food 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.
And bees will continue to do what they have been doing for millions of years. No secret there – they are being bees and honey bees can survive Winter.