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How do Bees Survive 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. Other species have a different method. How do bees survive Winter?

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

Where do Bees Go In Winter?

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. 

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These include the Bumble Bees, Yellow Jacket Wasps, hornets 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. She hibernates alone hidden in layers of garden debris or tree bark. Protected from the Winter cold until Spring.

Empty winter hornet nest abandoned image.

Honey Bee Colonies Prepare for Winter

A honey bee colony is different. Honey bees make and store honey to serve as a food source during the cold winter months.  Of course, 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.

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?

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.

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

Do Honey Bees Hibernate?

Honey bee colonies do not hibernate.  They stay inside warm inside the hive on cold days consuming stored honey to survive. However, they are not in a hibernation stupor.

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?

You are not likely to see a honey bee flying if the temperature is below 55°F. But, because a honey bee colony survives winter without going into true hibernation, they may fly on warm days.  

You may see them collecting pollen or nectar if any is available. It is interesting to note that some honey bees fly on much 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.  Bumble bees can fly at slightly colder temperatures.

Dead honey bee in Winter snow unable to fly in cold image.

Winter Survival of Colony – The 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.

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.

Free secrets of beekeeping link image.

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 Beehives 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.

Winter Survival of Bees

In the insect world, there are many different species and each one has developed a plan to carry their genetics into the next season.

Perhaps, it is a bee that depends on the mated queen for the next generation. Or like the honey bees, keeps a family intact from Fall to Spring. The plan has been going on for millions of years-it works most of the time.

Unfortunately, our bee 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.

The next season will arrive and all bees will be ready to come out and start a new year!

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