We already know what most species do when winter approaches. The birds begin to fly south. Bears go into hibernation mode. Humans, well, we layer up and turn on the heating.
Bees are a different matter altogether. You can’t really see into their hives to know how they survive the winter. But we know that they disappear around fall/winter and then we hear them buzzing around again sometime in the new year, which tells us that spring has arrived.
So, the question is: what do bees do in winter? After a lot of in-depth research, we’ll attempt to answer this question based on what we’ve learned. We’re pretty sure that you’re going to learn a thing or two about bees and their winter habits by the time you’re done reading this article.
“Do bees hibernate during the winter?” is a common question. Well, the short answer is no. Bees don’t hibernate or go into diapause like some flies do. The term “busy as a bee” is actually more truthful than you probably imagined. Bees stay busy all through the year, even during the winter.
But what exactly they do during the winter is what we’re about to find out.
Where Do Bees Go in Winter?
Bees don’t go anywhere new in winter. They stay in their hives. So, let’s check out what happens in the hive.
Caution: Just because a beehive appears dormant doesn’t mean that it is. As you’ve seen, they are still very active, so approach them with caution. No matter what the season is, if bees feel threatened, they’ll sting.
In summer, bees are proactive. They gather as much pollen and honey as they can to ensure that there will be enough to sustain them come winter.
During this period, beekeepers add something called “super boxes” to the hives. These boxes are essential in helping the bees collect more honey. When the bees fill these super boxes with honey, they’re removed by the beekeepers and then packaged for human consumption. But that’s just an interesting fact.
Now, keep this in mind: all bees pledge their absolute, undying fealty to their queen. Not even Queen Elizabeth II can boast this level of loyalty from her vassals. We said that to help illustrate the fact that during the winter, the sole goal of all bees in all of the different hives across the world is to keep their queen alive. This will ensure that she’ll be able to re-colonize the hive come spring. If the queen dies, the entire colony dies with her, so they must keep her alive at all costs.
What Do Bees Do in Winter?
As the temperature begins to drop to about 50°F (10°C), bees tend to hive more, meaning they start staying in their hive. The cooler the weather gets, the more pointless it becomes to stay outside. Aside from the harsh weather conditions, even the flowers get sleepy and stop blooming.
Bees don’t generally fly around during the winter since all the flowers are gone. They do go out on occasion, especially when it’s a bit warmer, to eliminate body waste and get some exercise, too. If they don’t defecate, they could die. If they don’t get any exercise, they run the risk of parts of their bodies wasting away. So, they usually fly around briefly over short distances and then return to the hive.
So, when the weather finally becomes cool, the bees become homebodies. This is when they form a winter cluster, pretty much like the huddles American football players form at games. The only difference is that this time, the huddle is a matter of life and death and will last as long as the winter. And guess who will be in the dead center of that cluster? The queen, of course! Why? Because she must be kept alive.
The Winter Cluster, Explained
The worker bees keep their queen alive by fluttering their wings and shivering. Funny, right? Actually, more like smart.
By doing this, the worker bees create constant motion (through the use of a continuous flow of energy), which produces the heat that warms the hive. But to keep shivering, bees need a continuous flow of energy, which they get from honey. So, the bees must have gathered enough honey during the summer or they risk dying during the winter. Beekeepers also help their bees alive by ensuring that they have an endless supply of honey so the shivers won’t stop.
Now, if you think about it those who remain on the outside of the cluster might seem unlucky. They’d bear the brunt of the cold, no? This isn’t the case, though, since there’s no permanent position for any bee in the cluster. The bees rotate their position from the inside to the outside and vice versa to ensure that all bees are kept warm and none get terribly cold.
Inside the cluster, temperatures can get as high as 80°F (26.6°C). On the outside, they can get as high as about 46°F (7.7°C). The weather conditions outside are what mostly determines the tightness or compactness of the cluster. If it’s very cold, the cluster will be very tight. If it isn’t so cold, the cluster will be less compact.
Do Bees Still Make Honey in Winter?
Short Answer: No.
Long Answer: It depends on what part of the world you live in. But in general, no. Bees need pollen and nectar to make honey. Pollen and nectar come from flowers. Flowers don’t bloom in winter. So, there’s no way for bees to produce honey during the winter, which is why they’re foragers. They concentrate their summer and spring energy into making and storing food that will help them survive the winter.
How Do Bees Ration Their Food?
Brood rearing occurs in the spring and summer. As the summer season gradually comes to an end, the brood is protected under layers of pollen, honey, and a peculiar honey-pollen mixture. When fall comes and bees can’t get enough pollen and nectar anymore, brood rearing stops. This is also when the hive experiences a steady population decline.
In winter, everyone concentrates on keeping the brood alive. As food levels begin to drop, the first ones to get kicked out, sadly, are the drones (the male bees). You see, the main function of the drones is to mate with the queen. They have no other function. Brooding ends long before winter, so keeping the drones is counterproductive for the hive. That’s why they get kicked out first.
Drones usually don’t survive the winter. They generally starve after they’re kicked out of the hive. You could consider this an altruistic move on the part of the drones. They sacrifice their lives (albeit unwillingly) to ensure that the hive survives.
The remaining food is then rationed among the queen, her brood, and the worker bees.
What About Solitary Bees?
There are bees that don’t form colonies, known as solitary bees. The overwintering habits for these solitary bees are as diverse as their species. For most though, the female goes around gathering pollen and nectar, which she then uses to make a nest.
The pollen and nectar bee the food for the eggs that she lays in the nest. These babies spend the winter eating, metamorphosing into larvae, and then becoming young bees. Unfortunately, adult solitary bees have very short lifespans (no longer than a month). This means that they don’t get to see their young. So sad.
There are several other different overwintering habits for different kinds of bees. But for the sake of this post, we’ll have to restrict ourselves to these points we discussed above.
Some Bonus Tips for Beekeepers
Before we go, here are a few tips for beekeepers to help manage your bees in winter.
- Don’t ever remove the frames during the winter unless the temperature is above 65°F (18.3°C), even if it’s just for inspection.
- Don’t give them aster honey in winter because it crystallizes quickly, which can give the bees dysentery. As the crystals separate, they produce water and bees can’t easily fly out to eliminate waste whenever they want in winter.
- Don’t ever give them brown sugar, molasses, or corn syrup. These substances contain really complex carbohydrates plus some other complex compounds, which bees simply can’t digest.
So, if you’re on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and they ask you, “What do bees do in winter?” you know the answer, now. Right?