Bears hibernate, birds fly south, but what do the honey bees do in winter? This is a question we often get asked this time of year.
In late summer, the Queen begins laying special “winter” bees. Winter bees are physiologically different than summer bees, with different body chemistry and fatter bodies. Winter bees live much longer (4 to 6 months) than summer bees (45 days). Their sole purpose – to get the colony, and most importantly the Queen through ’til spring!
As the temperature drops, the Queen stops laying eggs altogether and the bees begin to form the “winter cluster.” If you have ever seen the movie, “March of the Penguins,” it is pretty similar to how the penguins keep each other warm, except her majesty is always in the warmest spot. Essentially, the bees surround the Queen with their heads pointed inwards and “shiver” their flight muscles to generate heat. With thousands of bees shivering, these tiny space heaters warm up the center of the cluster considerably! So while individual honeybees are exothermic (the need to get heat from an outside source), collectively the colony, a superorganism, is endothermic (it maintains body heat from within).
As workers on the outer edge of the cluster get cold, they push to the center of the group and other bees take a turn shielding the group from the winter weather. On warmer days, the cluster will become a bit more dispersed and the bees will leave the cluster to consume honey which gives them energy to shiver and move about. Bees will also leave the cluster on warmer days to go on brief “cleansing flights” – a nice way to say they go to poop outside the hive!
Despite the honeybee’s ability to adapt to frigid temperatures, they do get some help from their friendly beekeeper. We make sure that each hive has more than enough honey reserves to get though winter while making sure not to leave too much space. A larger a hive takes more resources to heat and defend against predators and pests such as mice and moths. We also put special “winter cozies” on the hives, create wind blocks, and ensure that the hives are ventilated to avoid condensation in the hive.
Winter is a time when the beekeeper gets to take a break from all of the labour and lifting. This is not idle time as much time is spent worrying about the girls during every cold snap or windy storm. When they aren’t busy worrying, you can find a beekeeper catching up on reading various bee journals, brewing mead, or planning for the next year by building hive boxes and ordering supplies.
The worrying subsides a bit once the willows start budding but it only stops at that glorious sight of those first beautiful dandelions!