Last Updated on November 6, 2021
In this article, we take a look at how to keep bees alive in winter. Preparing bees for winter is an important part of ensuring hive survival. Bee temperature tolerance varies from race to race. Depending on your climatic zone, greater or lesser care is needed to give your bees the best chance of survival.
I have been asked on many occasions if bees hibernate. The correct answer is no bees do not hibernate. Hibernation refers to a metabolic process whereby warm-blooded animals lower their metabolism for prolonged periods of time. Animals such as bears hibernate. Bees on the other hand are not actually warm-blooded animals. They are insects capable of regulating their temperature through active choice.
Bees choose to use their bodies and their activity to create heat, and can therefore decide how hot they wish to keep a cluster of bees. In short – bees do not hibernate – but they do have a trick to get through winter. We will explore this trick, and then interrogate how we can better help them use their own tricks to survive.
Let us first take a walk back through time and say “in the millions of years before bees tamed humans to help them out, how did bees get through winter without a bunch of monkeys in bee suits to help them?”
What Is Winter?
I have worked with bees all the way from the equator to close to the arctic circle. The concept of winter varies greatly over this range.
In a paradise tropical Island such as Mauritius in the Indian ocean, winter is a balmy time of year where there is less (just a few inches) of rain per month. Temperatures hover around a balmy 77°F. Summer on the other hand sits consistently around 88°F and rainfall can be ten inches per month or more. In this environment, bees clearly do not need to regulate their temperature much, but they do need to provide for the “dry” season of winter. A beekeeper needs to check that going into “winter” the bees have at least 10 pounds of honey. I would imagine rules for Mauritius and Hawaii would be about the same, as these Islands have similarly delightful climates.
In the southern US and much of California, winters are mild and bees can get a bit of work done year-round. Again provisioning hives here for drier spells and reducing entrances is important. A bit of feeding based on local knowledge can help ensure bees remain strong, and applying mite treatments at the right time is important. This will prevent mite outbreaks if there is a sudden build-up.
Bees are just a little more stressed when days are shorter. I can use the analogy of a cold sore – these viral infections in humans are more common in winter. This is because winter is just not as healthy a time of year as summer. Food is less healthy, there are longer periods of being locked up inside, and so on.
In an area with a serious winter, bees are basically shut down for many months of the year. For these areas, you need the right bee genetics to get through the winter. The ability to form a winter cluster is genetically determined. As an example, any bees which have African genes in large proportions just do not make it through the winter. African bees struggle to shut down brood rearing and form a winter cluster.
This is one of the factors which has slowed or even stopped the northern migration of African bees in the US.
In an area with a proper winter, there are a lot more preparations that we need to consider to ensure our bees make it through winter. We will touch on these now.
Preparing Bees For A Proper Winter
The first and most important consideration is to choose the right genetics. Bees derived from northern European/Russian Genetics are cold-adapted bees. These bees would have nested in hollow trees in forests in Germany, Scandinavia, and then the really mean and tough ones even survived in Siberia. Before humans introduced pests and viruses to the wild populations through moving bees outside their natural ranges, bees were able to survive winter without our help.
The way they did this was to store a lot of honey. Towards the end of summer and fall, these bees also rear a lot of brood so they can enter winter with a large population of young bees. Young bees have a better chance of surviving the whole winter. In some races, there is also a small fall flush of drones. These drones are kept through winter so that in spring there are some drones ready to mate with young queens.
The Winter Cluster
A winter cluster is a special formation that bees form in order to optimally conserve heat and resources. The cluster is a dense ball of bees that move slowly around the hive consuming honey and converting this to heat. Bees will sometimes not rear any brood for some of the wintertime, or sometimes only a very small bit of brood. Gradually as spring approaches engage in more active brood rearing. If conditions are favorable, they will sometimes leave the hive to defecate.
As the days get longer, the bees will begin to rear a bit more brood, and soon, when temperatures allow they will warm bees up enough to go and fetch early pollen. The brood-rearing expands and the hive is ready for spring.
Take-home Lessons On Overwintering and How We Use These To Ensure Hive Survival In Managed Hives
Bees must genetically be able to cluster – choose the right bee strains/races for this.
The bees must be able to produce a late-season flush of brood and store enough honey to overwinter.
Bees will sometimes rear drones, which can lead to a pulse of mites – medicate.
The hive needs ventilation and the ability for bees to leave the hive to perform ablutions – top entrances help with this.
To ensure your bees make it through winter it is important to provide ventilation.
After you have checked that your bees have filled their frames with provisions for winter, you will need to provide either a candy board or use a dry sugar feed in a method such as the Mountain Camp method. These dry sugar feeding methods assist in keeping the inside of the hive dry and free of condensation. This increases bee survival and helps feed the bees.
You will need to also ensure that your hives are either in well-insulated boxes or in some cases wrap the hives in insulation. Placing the hives where they will not be buried in snowdrifts is also a good idea.
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Dr. Garth A. Cambray is a Canadian/South African entrepreneur and beekeeper with 28 years of experience in apiculture and specializes in adding value to honey. His Ph.D. research developed a new advanced continuous fermentation method for making mead that has resulted in a number of companies globally being able to access markets for mead. His company, Makana Meadery, exports honey mead to the USA where it is available to discerning connoisseurs. He has also developed technologies to commercially manufacture organic honey vinegar in Zambia for export globally. He holds a few patents globally in the ethanol industry and believes in technology and knowledge transfer for human development and environmental sustainability. One of his proudest achievements is the fact that the wind farm he started at one of his old apiary sites has essentially made his hometown carbon neutral.