Have you ever wondered about what bees do in the winter? Maybe not, but winter honey bees are every bit as fascinating as the bees that you see pollinating crops in the spring and summer. Without them, bee colonies would not survive from fall until spring.
Bee colonies contain 3 types of bees – workers (female), the queen (female) and drones (male). During spring and summer, the queen lays eggs, the drones mate with queens, and the workers take care of everything else, including the gathering of pollen and nectar. Worker bees during the warm months work themselves to death, living, on average, only 45 days. With this short lifespan, the worker bees of spring and summer would not be able to survive a months-long winter, and honey bees would cease to exist in colder climates.
Enter winter bees. In late August and early September, the queen lays and the worker bees tend bees that are designed to survive the winter. These bees have a higher fat content than their spring and summer sisters. With these extra internal stores, winter bees work within the hive in the cold months to keep the queen, themselves and early spring brood (baby bees) alive.
When temperatures outside drop to 57°F, the bees within the hive start to form a ball with the queen and any brood at the center. While the bees form a ball, there are obstacles to all the bees touching one another. Bees can be found on either side of the hive frames or, in feral hives, on either side of hanging comb, climbing into comb cells to move even closer together. Despite these obstacles, the bees cluster together so that they stay warm enough to survive winter and so that they keep the center of the ball and, therefore, the queen and any brood at 92°F. The cluster is the only part of the hive that is warm. Anything outside the cluster is at ambient temperature, so the rest of the hive could be very, very cold.
The bee cluster consists of two layers – an outer layer that acts as a temperature barrier and an inner layer, which contains more bees, the queen, and, as it gets closer to spring, the brood. The interior bees vibrate their wings, generating heat. The bees in the outer layer also vibrate their wings. As the temperature outside drops, the cluster tightens. After a time, the bees in the outer layer begin to run low on fuel to continue their work, so they migrate toward the interior of the ball and food. Bees from the interior migrate outward, taking the place of their energy-depleted sisters.
In periods when the weather is a bit warmer and the cluster a bit looser, the ball of bees can move within the hive, which is necessary so that the bees can reach food – in other words, the honey they so diligent made during the spring and summer. If temperatures outside remain too cold for too long, the tight cluster may be unable to move. The bees may deplete the honey stores available to them within the cluster. Without being able to move to more honey, the cluster will starve. In that situation, all the bees will die together, killing the colony.
Probably the most dangerous time for bees during winter months is early spring before any nectar-producing flowers are available. As the weather warms, the cluster begins to loosen. The bees become more active, and the queen begins to lay eggs in preparation for the spring/summer build up. The bees start to use honey stores. If temperatures drop again, it is possible that the bees will run out of food and starve to death.
However, if everything goes well, winter bees can take the hive and the queen through our Pacific Northwest winters. Once early blooming plants blossom, the worker bees will once again start the process of feeding the growing hive, which will work to store pollen and turn nectar into honey for the next winter. In this way, the cycle of life within the hive goes on.
If you are interested in learning more about bees, check out beekeeping classes in your area (wpbeekeeper.org, backyard-beekeepers.org, iebees.com), which are usually held in February or March. Also, you can attend the Washington Beekeepers Association (WASBA.org) bee conference, scheduled for February 9, 2019 at Eastern Washington University, Hargreaves Reading Room. Information and registration can be found at https://bit.ly/2RHBWky. Margo Buckles is a WASBA-certified Journeyman beekeeper based near Cheney, Washington. She is currently the Vice President, Education for the West Plains Beekeepers Association.