What Happens to Bees in the Winter?
Feeding Bees in Winter and Making Sure They Survive the Cold Months
Reading Time: 5 minutes
As we head into winter, with so much to do on the homestead, it can be easy to overlook the winter needs of your honey-producing bees. But don’t. They need your help too. In order to prepare your hives, it’s important to understand what happens to bees in the winter and how your climate affects them.
What Happens to Bees in the Winter?
As the temperatures fall and the flowers fade, people often wonder what do bees do in the winter? Unlike other insects, bees do not hibernate during the winter or lay eggs that overwinter and emerge in spring. Bees are active all winter long.
So what happens to bees in the winter? During the winter, the bees have one goal; protecting the queen until spring. They will do whatever it takes to reach this goal, even if it means they die in the process.
Once temperatures reach about 55 degrees, the bees will begin to cluster around the queen. The colder the temperatures get the tighter the cluster will become. They will shiver and flap their wings to increase the hive temperature to keep the queen warm at about 96 degrees. They rotate the duty of being on the outside so that everyone can have a chance to stay warm and not get worn out.
As you can imagine, it takes a lot of energy to shiver and flap wings to keep the hive warm. The cluster of bees will move around the hive and eat honey to fuel their warmth creating venture.
The bees will stay in the hive all winter long keeping it warm and eating honey. However, if the temperature is above 40 degrees some of the bees might leave the hive in order to keep waste accumulation down.
In order for a bee farm to survive the winter, all the hives need food, water, and warmth.
Feeding Bees in the Winter
Regardless of how mild your winters are, you’ll want to make sure that you leave honey for your bees for the winter. There are other ways of feeding bees in the winter but honey is the best fuel for them.
Depending on how long the winter is, a beehive will need about 30 pounds of honey to make it to spring. Therefore, most beekeepers that use Langstroth hives leave one deep box for the bees for the winter. Some beekeepers will leave an additional box, a super, if they anticipate a longer winter. This can be good for the hive but it also creates more room in the hive that the bees will need to keep warm and defend.
Learning how to make fondant for bees is a great way to ensure that the bees have enough food without having the extra space to worry about. Making fondant for bees is easy and can be done during the summer and frozen so it’s ready to use when you are preparing your hives for winter. One word of caution, don’t try to use fondant or syrup instead of leaving an appropriate amount of honey for the bees. Fondant does not have all that bees need to stay healthy, it’s just for backup.
If you have a queen excluder between the deep boxes, removing it will help the cluster stay together as they move around the hive to eat. If the queen has to stay in the bottom box, then bees will need to leave the cluster and go to the top box to get honey for the queen and the other bees. This uses a lot of energy and puts the hive at risk.
There is no need to provide water inside the hive for the winter. The humidity inside the hive will create condensation for the bees to use. However, it’s important to make sure there is some ventilation in the hive as too much condensation is harmful. There should be condensation on the sides of the boxes but not on the bees.
Opening the hive to check on it is risky when temperatures are below 40 degrees. Every time the hive is opened, warm air escapes and cold air enters. Most beekeepers don’t peek inside their hives during the winter but there is still a way to check to see if the bees are still alive. If you tap on the hive, you should hear the bees buzzing inside. Now, you don’t need to do this daily or even weekly, but you do want to check periodically.
The most dangerous time during the winter for bees is at the end when it begins to warm up and the bees leave the hive to forage. Unfortunately, there usually isn’t much, if any, pollen and nectar for the bees and they come back empty-handed and hungry. Depending on how much honey the bees needed to eat to survive thus far, there may not be any honey left in the hive. At this point,
the bees either need to be fed with fondant or syrup, or they will probably die. This is the most important time for a beekeeper to be regularly checking on his hives.
Helping Bees Stay Warm and Safe
For the most part, bees do a wonderful job of regulating the temperature in their hive. However, if you live in an extreme climate you might need to help them stay warm by providing insulation or windbreaks.
Snow is a great insulator, so there is no need to remove snow from the top of the hives. However, it’s important to keep the snow cleared from the hive opening so bees can come and go as they need to. The opening also helps ventilate the hive to keep condensation from being excessive.
Some beekeepers will wrap their hives with batting or foam, and add tar paper, to keep their hives warm. Others will use hay bales on three sides, keeping the front side open, to add insulation to their hives. The important thing to remember about whatever insulation technique you use is that you’re not trying to make the hive airtight, it still needs ventilation.
Windbreaks are another great way of helping your hives stay warm; just make sure the hive opening is facing away from the windbreak. Fences and hay bales make good windbreaks.
If you are using hay bales as a windbreak or for insulation, you’ll need to keep an eye out for rodents trying to move in for the winter.
If you need to move your hives in order to take advantage of a permanent windbreak, like a fence, make sure you do it in the evenings and only a few feet at a time. You’ll need to start the process early in the season.
During the winter, pests such as rodents, roaches, and ants can move into a hive seeking the warmth and food. This happens in cold climates and in mild climates. Mice and rat traps can help, and so can keeping your hives up off the ground.
Winterizing the Beehive for Your Climate
So much of winterizing your hives depends on your climate and I always recommend that beginning beekeepers seek out a mentor beekeeper who has successfully kept bees through several winters their area. Nothing will help you help your hives more than having someone to talk with about your specific climate and how it affects bees in the winter.
However, in every climate, bees need food, adequate condensation for water, adequate ventilation for airflow, warmth, and pest protection. Understanding your climate will help you determine how to provide these essentials for your hives.
What happens to bees in the winter can mean life or death for the hive. How do you prepare your hives for the winter?