Prior to becoming a beekeeper, I assumed that honey bees died off or hibernated like other cold blooded insects (or went south for the winter!). With our native bumble bees, newly mated queens hibernate below ground through the winter months. All workers, males and the mother queen die with the cold. Come spring the queen emerges and begins again with building a new colony.
Honey bees never really hibernate or sleep. Instead, they clusters together around the queen, within the hive, maintaining a temperature of about 96 degrees (and 50% humidity). Within the cluster, the bees flutter their wings, which helps to generate heat. The queen is always in the center warm and toasty, as female worker bees take turns rotating in and out of the cluster. (The male drones are kicked out of the hive before winter). They will remain in this cluster as long as temperatures are below 50 degrees. On warmer winter days, they may break the cluster and venture out of the hive for cleansing (bathroom) flights and to move the cluster upward towards honey stores. The bees need to re-cluster prior to drop in temperature or risk freezing.
As beekeepers, the goal is for your hive(s) to survive the winter. This may seem obvious to most, but with the loss of 30-60 percent of hives between January and March, not an easy task. In nature, honeybees often build hives in hallows of tree (away from mice and other pest) with a single entrance at the bottom. They utilize propolis (a sticky resin) to seal up the cracks. The trunk of the tree absorbs excess moisture, which can be used later if needed. To give their bees a "stinging" chance, some beekeepers choose to "winterize" their hives. There is a saying "if you ask 10 beekeepers a question, you will get 11 answers". So how this is done will vary among hobbyist and commercial beekeepers.
My husband and I came up with our own "winter survival plan" for our bees. One of our hives was weak with little possibility of coming through the winter alive. We combined it with our stronger hive, in hopes of giving that hive a better chance of survival. Before putting our "bees to bed for the winter" we treated our remaining hive for varroa mites. Varroa are parasites that attach to both adult bees and bee larvae, sucking their blood, transmitting viruses and weakening the bees immune system. If left untreated, varroa infestation can lead to the death of a hive. Bees need plenty of "food" (honey) to get through the long winter months. It's important to leave enough honey in the hive, about 70-100 pounds. We added fondant or bee candy as a back up food source. To protect the hive from strong, gusty winds, we put up a tarp to act as a wind break behind the hive. We also decided to wrap our hives in Styrofoam insulation for added warmth. To help with excess condensation within the hive (which drips cold water down onto the bees) we added straw, ventilation at the top and a screened bottom board. A mouse guard keeps unwanted critters out.
Winter can be difficult time for our bees, and a season of worry for the beekeeper. I hate "the not knowing" what is happening inside the hive. If we get a nice sunny day in the 40's with no wind, we will take a quick peak (we do not want to chill the bees or upset the cluster) and take any action that may be necessary. Although there are no assurances, we are hopeful they will pull through the winter!.
So for now, we hibernate inside the warmth of our house, sip hot tea with honey and wait for springs arrival!
|Infra-red sensor on a I-phone. The large red area is the bee cluster.|