Honey bees are fascinating!
The more you find out about them, the more interesting they become. One question that we get over and over at this time of year is how the bees get through winter. Some people think they hibernate while others were under the impression that they migrate like birds. We thought we’d list our a few interesting facts about what’s really going on with honey bees in colder climates during the winter months.
The Hive Stays Active
First and foremost, the bees don’t sleep or hibernate. They remain quite active, although in different ways, from other times in the year when they are busy foraging. Their main goal in the winter is getting the queen through to the next season. The worker bees will cluster around the queen to keep her warm, much like they do when they swarm.
The Workers Form A Natural Heater
In winter or in the warmer months, honey bees are masters of naturally climate controlling their hive. In the winter, however, they mainly focus on the temperature of the cluster as opposed to the full cavity of the hive. Bees nestled in the middle of the cluster shiver or vibrate their flight muscles to produce heat efficiently. Researchers have observed that the generation of heat is so efficient that it’s difficult to detect any movement or vibration just by watching them. Another interesting observation is that workers use these flight muscles without actually moving their wings. They are able to “uncouple” the muscles from the wings and use them independently of the wings. All of this heat keeps the queen at a toasty 93° F all winter long.
Winter Bees Can Get Old (relatively)
In many cold-climate regions, winter can easily last 5 months. Since the queen won’t lay eggs while they are wintering, the last generation of the season needs to make it to the following spring. For this reason, winter bees typically have a lifespan of about 6 months. This is in high contrast to their summer sisters who typically last only about 6 weeks. Studies have shown that there are definitely some physical differences in summer bees vs winter bees, but one of the main contributing factors to the short lifespan of summer bees is that they quite literally work themselves to death.
The Cluster As A Super Organism
Besides temperature-controlling the cluster, the workers will migrate the cluster around the hive, moving from comb to comb to eat honey as they need it. Typically the queen stays in the bottom half of the hive during the warm season. This is the brood nest where she lays eggs and the nurse bees raise them. As the season ends, the bees form the cluster where the queen is in the brood nest. All of the honey has been stored in the top of the hive. The cluster will begin to move around and upwards to feed on the honey over the course of the winter. Most of the time, when a hive is opened for the first time in the spring, the bees are up against the top cover enjoying the last of their honey reserves. This is the case, only if the beekeeper wasn’t greedy and left enough honey or feed in the hive from the previous season.
The Bathroom Is Outside
The inside of a hive is one of the cleanest environments in nature. Honey bees continually clean their home and themselves, and will not use the bathroom in the hive. (Unless they are sick, but that’s another topic) It’s one reason you can cut a piece of comb honey directly out of a hive and eat it… sooo good! Anyway, cold temperatures do not allow for bees to fly. Besides, they are busy using their energy to maintain the temperature of the cluster. Since they are stuck inside, they hold it. They also consume less honey than the warmer months and their metabolism is way down which helps keep the poo to a minimum in their guts. However, it can really add up over the course of a few months. As the days get warmer and the bees can fly, they will begin leaving the hive to take cleansing flights. Talk about relief.
How Do They Do This?
It’s amazing to see how nature has evolved these tiny creatures in sync with many other natural phenomena. They have had millions of years to work out the kinks and build in the efficiencies we see today. Getting through the winter is just some natural problem solving for the humble honey bee.