Bees prepare for winter in a similar way that squirrels do.
Squirrels and bees sock away food provisions to last most of the winter. They both bulk up, bees by adding family, squirrels by gaining weight. Neither bees nor squirrels hibernate. One other interesting similarity between squirrels and bees (though clearly different) is to keep warm they shiver. Shivering isn’t just a sign of being cold; it also serves as a way to keep warm.
You may wonder what other creatures do. Bears actually hibernate, birds fly south to warmer climates, while others simply adapt to the changing temperature.
So what do honey bees do in winter?
Unlike bumblebees and wasps, honey bees do not hibernate during the winter. Although the insects come from the same species, their winter tendencies are very different. When outside temperatures begin to drop to below 60 degrees it signals the bees to prepare for winter.
Six ways that bees prepare for winter
1. Bees have one main job in the winter — to take care of the queen bee. This means they must keep her safe and warm. Bees prepare for winter by performing a multitude of tasks that ensure the hive's survival during the cold months. The priority: gather and store nectar and pollen to have plenty in reserves.
2. Before winter female honeybees (worker bees) force male bees (drones) out of the nest because they eat too much.
3. Bees literally work themselves to death. In colder weather, worker bees live up to nine months, in warm weather, they live for about six weeks.
4. The honey bee is cold-blooded; they need to maintain warm temperatures in the hive to keep themselves alive during the harsh winter months. To do this, the worker bees join forces in the form of a cluster. They huddle together with the queen bee at the center.
Shiver me timbers
Worker bees shiver and flutter their wings in unison, providing constant motion which in turn keeps heat inside the cluster. This vibration can heat the center of the cluster up to 93 degrees. Bees do not warm their entire hive, as humans do. Their focus is just to keep the cluster warm in order to not expel any extra energy.
5. The colder the weather the tighter-knit the cluster. In the winter months, the honeybees only leave the hive for cleansing flights (read: take potty breaks). On the image above, the yellow represents where the bees are in clusters in the hive. This shot was taken on the coldest day of winter.
6. The bees need a source of energy to essentially shiver all winter long. This is when the honey comes into play. As a beekeeper, at our apiary, we leave at least 100 pounds of honey in the hives so the bees have enough to consume and stay energized for the entirety of winter. Bees will consume up to 30 pounds of stored honey over the course of a single winter. You always want to leave more than enough honey for the bees.
Maryland winters are unpredictable, with some days brutally cold and snowing and the days that follow can reach up to 60 degrees and sunny. On the warmer sunny days, bees will leave the hive to spread their wings and relieve themselves before returning back to the cluster. The cluster will also reposition itself in other areas of the hive where there is fresh honey to eat.
Never open the hive in frigid temperatures, even if for only a few moments the intense cold can kill the bees.
If honey bees die during the winter, it’s usually not due to the cold. Varroa mites or other diseases are usually the culprits. The death of a hive usually begins when the weather is still warm and everyone appears to be in good health, and that is why it comes as such a surprise to a beekeeper when the hive population seems to just disappear.
We had only one year where we lost all of our bees in 10 years of beekeeping. We made a few big changes in our apiary to ensure that this doesn't happen again. Varroa mites an external parasite (think bee ticks) that can infect bees with various diseases that can ultimately kill a hive. The best way to prevent varroa mites is to treat the bees at various intervals during the season to prepare for the winter.
Winter is my time to curl up on the couch with my heated blanket, a hot cup of tea (with honey, of course), and a good book – or let’s be a real, binge-watch a new television series. Many humans “hibernate” in the winter; we tend to stay indoors where we can comfortably heat our homes to whatever temperature we desire, only braving the cold for those few moments running to the car.
Not the honey bees. They work hard from the moment they are born until the end, without stopping to rest.
Honey bees stock up on honey and pollen for the winter months. This is why it's so important for beekeepers to be sure to leave them with enough reserve at the end of harvest. When left to their own devices, and when free of disease, honey bees will focus on building their family and strengthening their hive at the beginning of August in our region. We do not interrupt the hive during this time, we supplement their food to support strong gut health and give them herbs and protein among other ingredients. The idea is strength in numbers. The more bees, the stronger the hive, the better the chance of getting through the winter.