What Happens to Honey Bees in Winter?


Getting a beehive through the winter is the greatest hardship in Routt County (that’s a part of Colorado)  beekeeping, said Bill Fetcher, who keeps seven hives between the Fetcher Ranch in North Routt and his home a few miles north of Steamboat Springs.

“If I were a queen bee with a colony, I would not choose to settle here,” Fetcher said. “I’d want a warmer climate, like Grand Junction or Glenwood Springs, farther south where the weather extremes aren’t so harsh.”

Bees and snow do most of the work to keep a hive warm through winter. A beekeeper might make minor adjustments to the hive to improve insulation or ventilation in the winter months, such as wrapping a hive in black plastic to help it better absorb the sun’s heat or altering the opening of a hive. A blanket of snow on a hive helps insulate it and keep it warm, too. Besides that, though, it’s up to the bees.

Bees heat up their hives by forming a cluster and shimmying their muscles. This generates heat, which keeps the middle of the cluster warm. Worker bees — all females — circulate through the cluster, with the bees on the edge of the cluster circulating in to the warmer center of the cluster. The queen is always in the center of the ball of bees, which is about 92 degrees. The more bees, the bigger a cluster and the better the hive’s fate will be.

“They kind of quiver and shake their wings, and that physical action generates heat. That’s how they stay warm,” said Perry Baker, co-owner of Outlaw Apiaries. “They’re constantly moving from outside to inside, outside to inside. On super cold nights when it’s 20 below and colder, the outer bees will actually freeze and die, and then they kind of fall to the hive floor, and you hope that there’s enough bees that can sustain that for many nights up here.”

Bees die everyday in a hive, not just when it freezes, Baker said. It’s a normal part of hive life.

Honeybees keep their house tidy, too. Bees generally won’t defecate in the hive. In the winter, they hold on to their waste until a warm day hits. When they break cluster, the bees exit the hive to relieve themselves, leaving spots of yellow on the snow.

“Later on in the winter, when they get a warm day where they can fly, they’ll get out for what’s called a ‘cleansing flight’ because beehives don’t have toilets,” Fetcher said.

When March warm ups come, Edmiston shovels hers out of the igloo-shaped snow that has slowly buried them to be sure the bees can buzz out to do their business.

“You can’t see the hives at all, and I’ll go out there on my skis,” she said. “The snow will actually melt into like a little igloo shape. They’ve been in this little insulated dome the whole time.”

The worker bees also carry out the bodies of the dead bees in cleansing flights.

Bees remain in cluster when temperatures fall below about 40 to 50 degrees. If it warms up, they’ll break cluster, stretch their wings and spread out a bit more to munch on the honey and pollen they’ve stored.

The cluster moves around the hive all winter, feeding on the honey the bees have built up in the warmer months. About 50 to 70 pounds of honey can get a hive through the winter here, though some beekeepers might choose to feed their bees extra sugar in the form of sugar water, corn syrup or pollen, particularly when the queen starts laying eggs, again.

While summer bees typically survive four to six weeks, the less active winter bees can survive for four to six months. There are no baby bees in the winter. Drones, or male bees, are driven out of the hive during the fall. Their only purpose in the hive is to mate, and the queen doesn’t lay eggs in the winter. By the end of December, she’ll slowly start laying to build up the colony, again. Bees will start foraging successfully when the dandelions start blooming, typically around May, Fetcher said.

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