Where do bees go in the winter?

Where do bees go in the winter?

This winter at The Bee School we have been wrapping up warm and bracing the winter farmers markets to create a buzz about bees. Chatting to all the curious bee-lovers, there have been a few questions that have popped up time and again: Where are the bees now? What do they do when it gets cold? Do honey bees hibernate? Well, we are here to answer all your wintery queries!

Colorful yellow and blue beehives covered with snow

So, do bees hibernate over the winter? In short, no, but a wintering hive has very different needs and roles to protect their colony and queen than a summer hive. A bee in the wintering population even has a different physical characteristic! They are slightly bigger and stouter to help them retain more heat in the colder temperature, as well as increasing their lifespan. A summertime worker bee, like a forager bee who finds and collects pollen, nectar and water for the hive, may only live for a few weeks because of the exhausting work and exposure to predators, however, a wintering bee can live for 4-6 months to sustain the hive population over winter. The queen tends to stop laying eggs and rearing the new bees during the peak winter months. This means having a healthy and strong hive in the autumn and beginning of winter is imperative to a colony making it through the winter.

A wintering hive is entirely female! The male bees (the drones) die off or are killed after mating with a queen from another colony in the summer, after mating their work is done. The wintering females will form a tight cluster, with the queen at the centre, being the warmest point. The workers flex their muscles located in their thorax, their flight muscles, causing a vibration that raises each bee’s body temperature. Sometimes the centre of the cluster can reach temperatures of 30-35°C, while the outer layer fluctuates around 10°C.

Sourced from: American Bee Journal, 2016

A winter cluster does not produce any honey, but instead feeds on the honey stores they worked so hard in the warmer months to produce. Without a food source, a colony will not survive through the winter as it will not have the energy to heat itself. On average, a healthy colony will produce two to three times the amount of honey it needs to sustain itself over the winter months. When a beekeeper is harvesting honey, they are taking the excess honey and always leaving enough for the bees to sustain themselves over winter, as well as topping up food sources with sugar syrups and fondants. When the weather starts to creep above 12°C, the cluster will loosen and bees will venture outside to clear out waste and even start foraging on early blooming flowers.