When winter approaches we already know what most species do. The birds begin to fly south; bears, of course, go into hibernation mode; humans, well, we layer up and heat up our homes. Bees are a different matter altogether, you can’t really see into their hives to know how they survive the winter but somehow, we know that they disappear around fall to winter and then we hear their noises again sometime in the new year which announces to us that spring has arrived. So, here’s the question, what do bees do in the winter? We will attempt to answer this question in this article following the voluminous and in-depth research we conducted on the matter. We are pretty sure you’re going to learn a thing or ten about bees and their winter habits by the time you’re done with this article.
It’s common to ask, “do bees hibernate during the winter?” well, the short answer to that is no. bees do not hibernate or go into diapause like some flies do. The term “busy as a bee” is actually more real than you probably imagined. Bees actually stay busy all through the year, even during the winter. But what exactly they do during the winter is what we are about to find out:
Where do Bees go in the Winter?
Bees do not go anywhere new during the winter. They remain in their hives. So, let’s go into what happens in the hive, then.
Now, while summer is on, bees stay proactive. They ensure that they gather as much pollen and honey as they can that will be enough to sustain them come winter. During this period, beekeepers add something called “super boxes” to the hives. These boxes are necessary to help the bees in the collection of more honey. When these super boxes are filled with honey, they are then retrieved by beekeepers and then packaged for consumption by us humans. But that’s just by the way.
Now, keep this in mind: all bees pledge their absolute, undying fealty to their queen. Not even Queen Elizabeth of England can boast of this level of loyalty from her vassals. We said that to say that during the winter, the sole goal of all the bees in the different hives across the world is to keep the queen alive so that come spring, she will be able to re-colonize the hive. If the queen dies, the entire colony dies with her so she must be kept alive at all cost.
But how is this achieved?
As the temperature begins to drop to about 50 degrees Fahrenheit, bees tend to hive more, i.e. they start staying more in the hive. The cooler the weather gets, the more pointless it becomes to stay out because aside from the harsh weather conditions, even the flowers from where they get pollen get sleepy and stop blooming.
Hence, when the weather finally becomes cool they then form a winter cluster, pretty much like the huddles players form at football games, only 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 dead center in that cluster? Why of course, the queen! Why? Because she must be kept alive.
The worker bees keep their queen alive by fluttering wingers 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 as we stated earlier and this energy is obtained from honey. Hence, the bees must have gathered enough honey during the summer or they risk dying during the winter. Beekeepers also help their bees stay alive by ensuring that they have an endless supply of honey so the shivers don’t stop.
Now, if you think about it very well, in a cluster, those who remain on the outermost side might appear unfortunate as they will bear the brunt of the cold the most. However, this is not the case as there is no permanent position for any bee in the cluster. What happens is that the bees rotate their position from the inside to the outside and vice versa to ensure that all bees are kept warm and none gets terribly cold.
Inside the cluster, temperatures can get as high as 80 degrees Fahrenheit; and on the outside, they can get as high as about 46 degrees Fahrenheit.
The tightness or compactness of the cluster is determined principally by the weather conditions outside. If it’s very cold, the cluster will be very tight, if it isn’t so cold, the cluster will be less compact.
Although bees do not generally fly around during winter days since all the flowers are asleep, they do go out on occasion, especially when it’s a bit warmer to eliminate body waste and get some exercise too. If bees do not defecate, they could die and if they do not exercise, they run the risk of parts of their bodies wasting away. Hence, they’d usually fly around briefly over short distances and then return to the hive promptly.
Do Bees Still Make Honey in the Winter?
Short answer, no. Long answer, it depends on what part of the world you live. But generally, no. Bees need pollen and nectar to make honey. Pollen and nectar are gotten from flowers. Flowers do not bloom during the winter. So you see? There’s no way bees can produce honey during the winter, and that’s why they are foragers. They concentrate their summer and spring energy towards making and storing food that will help them survive the winter.
How is this food Rationed?
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.
By winter, everyone concentrates on keeping the brood alive. And 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 aside that. By winter, brooding must have ended a long time ago, hence, keeping the drones is counterproductive for the hive, and that’s why they get kicked out first.
Drones usually do not survive the winter due to starvation after being kicked out of the hive. It’s kinda 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 workers.
Caution: That a beehive appears dormant doesn’t mean it is. As you have seen, they are still very active, so approach them with caution. If bees feel threatened, they will sting, whether it is winter or not.
What about Solitary Bees?
Now there are bees that do not form colonies, known as solitary bees. The overwintering habits of these solitary bees are as diverse as their species. For most though, the female goes around gathering pollen and nectar with which she makes her nest. The pollen and nectar will form the food for their eggs when they lay them in the nest. These eggs spend the winter eating and metamorphosing into larvae, and then young bees. Unfortunately, adult solitary bees have very short lifespans (not longer than a month) hence, they don’t get to see their young. So sad.
There are several other different overwintering habits of several other kinds of bees, but for the sake of this post, we will have to restrain ourselves to these points discussed above.
But just before we go, a few tips for beekeepers to help manage your bees during the winter
- Do not ever remove the frames during the winter except the temperature is up to 65 degrees at least, even if it’s for inspection. And do not give them Aster because it gets crystallized really fast which can give the bees dysentery. This is because as the crystals separate, they produce water and you know bees can’t really easily fly out to eliminate waste whenever during the winter.
- Also, do not ever give them brown sugar, molasses, or corn syrup. These substances contain really complex carbohydrates plus some other really complex compounds which bees do not have the capacity to digest. They’d hardly move into a new comb, anyway, as they tend to prefer the same foundation used to rear the brood.
So if you’re asked on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, “what do bees do in the winter”? You now know the answer, right?