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Where do Bees Go In Winter?
Obviously, bees have a Winter survival plan because we see bees each Spring. But these cold blooded insects must develop a way to survive during the cold months. Where do bees go in Winter? Different kinds of bees have different methods of living until Spring. In the case of the honey bee, it is a well known bee fact that they make and store honey. The over-Wintering plan of the honey bee has kept them alive for millions of years.
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.
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? Beekeepers certainly hope to find those hives occupied come warm weather.
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.
Why do we not see honey bees outside on cold days? Well, there would be very little food available for the bees to harvest. And, these cold blooded insects can not fly in cold temperatures.
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. The bees stay inside warm inside the hive on cold days consuming stored honey to survive.
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.
What Temperature do Bees Stop Flying?
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. The sight of dead bees in the snow is rather sad.
At What Temperature do Bees Die?
How cold is too cold for bees? Honey bees become sluggish once the temperature drops below 55 degrees F . Bees will die of hypothermia if their body temp falls to 45 degrees F.
Clustered together in the hive, 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.
The Winter Cluster of Bees
Honey bees are able to survive the cold Winter temperatures because of two management techniques. With these conditions in place, a healthy colony of bees will live to see Spring.
- proper food storage
- enough bees 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.)
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 sometimes even 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 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 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.
Bees Must Keep Early Brood Warm
Heat production becomes even more important in very early Spring. The colony begins raising young bees.
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 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 limits. Bitter cold may kill a colony that does not have enough bees to generate life sustaining heat during a cold snap.
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 . Ventilation is very important to the colony. You can wrap them up too tight!
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 degree day will not get very far. She will certainly not make it back to the hive.
More Beehives Die During Winter
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 lack of vigor and influx of new diseases and pests has taken a toil on winter survival rates – 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?
Final Word of Where Bees Go in Winter
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.
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.
Bees will continue to do what they have been doing for millions of years. No secret there – they are being bees and each type of bee has a plan for Winter.