What Do Bees Do In The Winter?

We are always being asked what do honey bees do in the winter and so despite the fact that spring should be just around the corner I have decided to put up this blog to answer the question.

Bees in the UK have evolved to basically take the winter off. This is because there is little or no food available in the foraging area and the temperature should drop as well as the weather deteriorate with rain and snow. Much of this is changing due to  climate change with warmer and wetter winters but we will discuss that later.

As the colony comes to the conclusion that the season is coming to an end all the drones (male bees) are kicked out to die. As no virgin queens will be created they are just extra mouths to feed during the winter. The colony can always make some more in spring when they need them. It’s bad luck for the blokes but they have had a pretty good life.

Once the hours of daylight begin to shorten and the temperature begins to drop the bees will begin their preparations for winter. As they will be unable to gather nectar for the next few months late flowering plants such as ivy are really important when gathering for winter stores.


A bee on ivy gathering winter stores

The queen will begin to slow down laying and eventually should pretty much stop altogether. The younger the queen the longer she is likely to continue laying.

Normally the female worker bees will only live for about six weeks but in the winter they may need to survive for five or even six months as few if any new bees are emerging.  In order to prepare themselves for the long period ahead they will feed on pollen in order to build up their body reserves.

Once the temperature begins to drop (particularly at night) the colony will form a cluster around the queen and it is generally thought that the cluster will be completed when the ambient temperature falls to around 13 degrees C. This cluster then has an amazing ability to keep warm. In his book Guide To Bees And Honey the much missed Ted Hooper talks about recordings of a cluster temperature of 31 degrees C even though the surrounding air temperature was as low as minus 28 degrees C.

The bees should remain in this cluster moving around the hive to find stores of honey until the temperature begins to increase in spring.

The only exception to this should be on warm winter days when the so called “cleansing flights” take place.

Bees will never foul their own hive and need to go outside to relieve themselves. In fact during their time confined to the cluster the rectum of a bee can fill half it’s abdomen and run the entire length. By the time they can get outside they can be pretty desperate!!!

The cluster will keep the bees (together with the all important queen) warm and well fed until spring comes around and the whole cycle of the colony can begin again.

So How Is Climate Change Having An Effect?

We have all heard about the great enemy of honey bees – namely the varroa mite. Long cold winters where the queen is not laying are really bad news for this mite as with no new brood there is nowhere for the mite to lay her eggs. Fewer infected bees will survive the winter and so fewer mites will be able to survive.

Unfortunately with the last few winters being so mild the queens have only slowed down a little with their laying and so the varroa has had somewhere to lay her eggs all winter long. A longer breeding season means more mites in the spring when the colony is least able to deal with them.

Queens only have so many eggs available inside them and so if they do not get a rest from laying during the winter then they will run out sooner. Once a queen is no longer able to lay then the colony will kill and replace her. Milder winters mean that queens have shorter lives.

Where the winter is milder the bees cluster less and therefore require more energy in the form of stores. This means that more honey must be left on the hive to see them through winter and spring feeding is now very common. Some people are even saying that more colonies starve in the spring than the winter.

Damp is a real killer of honeybees. As can be seen from the above, honeybees can deal with very low temperatures but damp is another matter. Once the colony gets damp it is very difficult or even impossible for it to dry out again. We are seeing damper winters and as I write this the whole of the UK has been suffering from gales force winds, heavy rain and flooding for the last few weeks. I even know of colleagues who have had hives washed away.

So, All Bad News?

One of the great challenges of beekeeping is coping with the many changes that modern life throws at the bees. As the world changes at a faster and faster rate the need for good beekeepers grows.

Everyone can help by growing plants that flower late and early in order to help out with the food problem. Beekeepers can help by carefully monitoring their bees and helping them through the winter.

With a combination of good beekeeping and sensible gardening the bees can be helped to overcome the problems.

Soon we will see the hives flying again and we can all enjoy the wonderful sound of honeybees buzzing on a warm summer day. Heaven!!