What the Heck do Bees DO all Winter Long?

I’m no biologist, my point here really is just to provide some insight into what we’ve learned in our quest to find answers to our many bee-related questions.. Please do share your knowledge and experience if it differs, but also know that we are just figuring things out as we go!

Last year our bees weathered our mild Michigan winter well. They (and we) did everything the textbooks suggested and we all came through it healthy and confident.  This year, winter has thrown us a bit of a curve ball.  Michigan winters are traditionally cold and snowy, but the last few years, things have been a bit more on the mild side. Well, this year, we are back on track it seems.  We’ve had a handful of record-breaking cold days as well as wind and record snowfall.  This prompted my husband and I to lay in bed one night, listening to the wind gust, and wonder…

– What exactly do the bees do all winter long? Especially if winter is especially long?

– Do they ever go out of the hive?

– We know they survive cold, but this cold? And for this long?

– What will we do if the snow drifts over the hives?

– Will they run out of food? When? How will we know? What will we do?

Yikes!  (Don’t even get me started on the night we laid awake and worried about the chickens!) Any one of these topics could probably be addressed in a novel-sized response, so I’ll just summarize some of our thoughts and findings on each, but in a few posts over the next few days.

What do bees do all winter?

Bumblebees and wasps, for example, go dormant, but honey bees actually need to keep themselves alive all winter. Short answer: they vibrate their wings to stay warm and eat honey to stay alive.

Long answer: At the onset of winter, the worker bees force the drone bees out of the hive. The drones will basically starve to death and die. Harsh, I know. It’s important, however, to whittle the colony down to “just the necessities” in order to survive.  The queen stops laying and everyone hunkers down around the honey. My favorite detail about bees in winter is the ball they form to keep everyone warm and fed. Here’s a great description:

The honey bee workers form a cluster around the queen and brood, keeping

them warm. They keep their heads pointed inward. Bees on the inside of the cluster can feed on the stored honey. The outer layer of workers insulates their sisters inside the sphere of honey bees. As ambient temperatures rise, the bees on the outside of the group separate a bit, to allow more air flow. As temperatures fall, the cluster tightens, and the outer workers pull together. (source)

Here’s an overhead view of a winter cluster from Stevens Bees. I can’t offer a picture from our own hive (yet, at least) because it’s been way too cold to open the top too much. In the picture, the white clumps are fondant (more on this later).

So this is what winter looks like in a hive. The honey provides the necessary energy to keep them alive. The bees vibrate their wings (or shiver, if you will) to stay warm and with all these little bee bodies vibrating at one time, in one big cluster, I’ve read the hive temperature can exceed 90 degrees. Nice and toasty, I’d say.  Another detail I love is that, as the bees on the outside of the cluster start to feel chilled or hungry, they shove their way into the center of the cluster to warm up and new bees take their turns on the outside. Smart little buggers, I mean, bugs.

As simple as this seems, various things can still kill them.  I read a while ago that bees are actually quite hardy and rarely is it the straight-out cold that kills them. Symptoms of the cold are usually what does it.  I’ll focus on this in my next post.

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