Honey bees do not migrate for the cold season, but they do have a complex way to make it through the winter, involving honey resources and clustering the entire colony together to keep the queen warm. The non-productive bees are kicked out of the colony for efficiency reasons, and if all goes well, the beekeeping equipment will be used during next season as well.
Bees are known to be extremely interesting creatures that live their lives around the hive in a highly organized way. There are tens of thousands of species living around the world, each with its own particularities when it comes to dealing with particular weather conditions.
However, given that honey bees pollinate around 80% of crops around the United States, it’s only natural to want to understand their behavior first. On the other hand, while honey bees might be crucial for agricultural purposes, it’s important to keep in mind the rest of pollinating species, other insects and even birds, so that a balance is maintained as much as possible.
With this being said, let’s see what secret behaviors honey bees have and how they are dealing with low temperatures, when they cannot fly over fields covered in flowers. If you are thinking that they migrate to other warmer regions, this is not happening and bees remain where they are trying to survive the winter.
In fact, most wasps and bees hibernate during the cold period, and in many species, only the queen survives this period. Once the winter is over, she is able to re-establish a colony. However, when it comes to honey bees, they remain somewhat active throughout the entire winter, despite the lack of flowers that they could use to forage and the freezing temperatures.
If you’ve ever wondered why bees make honey, here is your answer. They produce honey so that they can go through the winter, and their entire survival depends on their food storage.
They need to keep warm during those months, and this means they need energy which is taken straight out of the honey reserves. In case the colony runs short on supplies, then there’s a very high chance that it will freeze to death before making it into spring.
What is the solution?
After a long summer of foraging for nectar and pollen, the bees are getting ready to face the cold season. Every colony has one queen, which is also the mother of all the bees, worker bees (which are females), and drones (which are the males). Once they reach the early fall, the queen will start laying fewer eggs, and by late October she will stop doing this altogether.
After all, newly born bees would mean that important food resources would be consumed for nothing throughout the winter. Following the same logic or preserving everything to ensure the colony’s survival, all the non-productive bees, namely the drones, are also kicked out of the colony.
There is no room for couch potatoes, which means that throughout winter the colony becomes a club exclusively for girls. Once the temperatures start to go below 57°F, the hive begins to cluster into one large mass that keeps the queen in the middle. Throughout winter they take turns moving from the center toward the outside so that every individual has access to warmth.
Moreover, they work together to generate heat using their wings that are shivering, thus maintaining a temperature between 60° and 80°F within the cluster. There is a “must-have” list for every hive that wants to make it through the winter and having a young and healthy queen is one of the prerequisites.
For colonies with a total population of 60,000 bees or more, no disease or pest should be present and several frames of pollen and at least 80 lbs. of honey are necessary as resources. Of course, the ‘no disease’ rule applies in the case of any colony, no matter its total population.
Getting ready for spring
Around mid-February, when the winter is coming toward its end, the queen starts laying eggs again to ensure the next generation of bees that is going to work throughout the summer. Once a brood if formed in the nest, the bees work harder to maintain a constant temperature of 92° around it, even if the temperature outside is way lower, as it’s oftentimes the case.
Bees also take advantage of brief warm winter days, and they go outside to relieve themselves, as some might say. Given that we are talking about a very large number of bees clustered together for a long period, there are many other dangers that threaten the colony’s survival besides the cold outside temperature.
Pests, diseases and many other such issues can appear and spread very quickly within the colony, especially since given the circumstances it’s not in its top shape. On the other hand, if the colony does make it through the winter, it has every chance to rebuild itself into a very strong hive during the following summer.
Of course, at the beginning of spring, the hive’s population is significantly reduced. The good news for the little workers is that, as long as the minimum number exists to sustain the hive’s survival, rebuilding the population is not going to be a problem if anything else doesn’t happen that might threaten its survival.
How do bees keep the hive warm?
Now that we’ve pretty much covered the entire process, there is one aspect that is very interesting and that you may want to know more about, namely, how do these insects manage to keep the colony warm? The first thing that is very important to know is that this is a joint effort and only together they can make it through the tough months.
This behavior might also teach us, humans, a little bit about the importance of working together, but that’s another story. Going back to honey bees, it’s interesting to note that as the ambient temperature rises, the individuals on the outside of the group separate a bit, thus allowing for the air to flow around.
As temperatures fall, the cluster gets tighter, with the outer workers pulling closer together. The workers also generate heat within the hive after they feed on honey for energy. Once they have enough energy, the honey bees begin to shiver, which means that they use the flight muscles to vibrate but keep their wings still, which in turn raises their body temperatures.
Given that we are talking about thousands of bees doing this at the same time, the temperature within the cluster’s center remains around 93° F. When the outer workers get cold, they push toward the center, with the other bees taking a turn as a shield from cold temperatures.
What happens when we take the honey?
Now that you know that the delicious product you are planning to spread on bread for breakfast is supposed to keep these insects from freezing to death, you might have second thoughts on whether we should be eating it at all. Of course, many processes and various conditions have been developed today to make sure that bees are protected during winter.
On the other hand, you may also be relieved to know that colonies usually produce more honey during the foraging season than they need to use in order to survive the cold months. The average colony can produce around 25 lbs. of honey, while during the more productive seasons this quantity can go as high as 60 lbs.
Thus, beekeepers harvest that honey that is extra, but they always make sure that enough is left behind for the hive to be comfortable and able to make it through the winter. In fact, according to data, bees produce approximately two to three times the amount of honey they need.
An interesting piece of advice from experienced beekeepers is to always take a good look at what you are going to harvest before doing it. If you are harvesting the honey supers but don’t check the brood boxes to see what’s going on there, you might be in for a big surprise (and not a pleasant one at the end of the winter).
Oftentimes bees use the brood boxes to gather pollen and brood and it’s not until late in the year that they start moving the honey closer. This means that if the beekeeper takes the supers without checking, the bees could be left with almost nothing for the entire winter, and we all know how this story ends.