Insects are cold blooded creatures that can not survive in cold temperatures. Unable to regulate their body temperature, they become sluggish and then die. So, where do bees go in Winter? Some live alone and others depend on nest mates. In the case of the honey bee, they make and store honey. But, this is not the norm in the bee world.
Do Bees Hibernate?
Some bees do hibernate over the long cold months. Burrowing into bark, or ground debris and becoming still and inactive – yet still alive. True hibernation helps them survive (or at least their genetics) from one season to the next.
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Most bees and wasps do not survive as a whole colony. These include the Bumble Bees, Yellow Jacket Wasps, hornets and many others.
In these families only the mated reproductive females survive. The males and workers belonging to the nest die once cold arrives.
The wasp or bumble bee 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 early Spring, she may emerge on cool days to feast on some Winter flowers.
Honey Bee Winter Survival
However, honey bee colonies do not hibernate. They stay inside warm inside the hive on cold days consuming stored honey. But, they are not in a hibernation stupor and may fly outside on warm days.
How are they able to keep so many colony members warm and alive. Worker bees inside the Winter hive are different. They live longer than bees 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. Some bees sleep inside the hive – just resting and surviving. Once warm weather arrives, the race is on to collect food needed by the hive.
How Colonies Prepare for Winter
The beehive is a frenzy of activity in the months leading up to Winter. Before temperatures fall too low worker bees collect pollen and plant nectar non-stop. They transform nectar into honey that will keep for a long time without spoiling.
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.
The Winter Bee 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!
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.
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 beeswax 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 honeycomb.
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
Emergency feeding in in Winter can be done but Fall preparation is best. 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. The next season will arrive and all bees will be ready to come out and start a new year!
FAQS about Bees in Winter
Well, there would be very little food available for them to harvest. And, these cold blooded insects will die if they become chilled.
You are not likely to see a honey bee flying if the temperature is below 55°F. However, Bumble bees are know to forage in cooler temperatures. Even among honey bee colonies – some of them will forage at cooler temperatures than others. It is genetics at work.
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.